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Gidon Saks, Contradictions

available at Amazon
Handel, Saul, R. Joshua, L. Zazzo,
G. Saks, Concerto Köln, RIAS Kammerchor, R. Jacobs
It would be hard to forget the loathsome Hagen incarnated by Gidon Saks, in Washington National Opera's Götterdämmerung in 2009, all the more remarkable because it was a concert performance. It seemed likely that the Israeli-born bass-baritone would bring the same magnetic presence to his recital of art songs for Vocal Arts D.C. last night in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. Of course, opera singers do not necessarily make good song recitalists, and it was not that surprising that Saks had varied success in a program that had its ups and downs.

Saks was at his best in a set of songs by Shostakovich, set to poems in English and composed in 1942. The poetry, alternately edgy and banal -- a Walter Raleigh sonnet about the ingredients of hanging, a Shakespeare sonnet about the desperation of the creative life (the line "art made tongue-tied by authority" must have resonated with Shostakovich), ballads by Robert Burns, and a nursery rhyme (an absurdist miniature playing on the insipid description of military concerns) -- is matched to music in an often sparing, bleak style, and the combination engaged the best side of Saks's imagination. The same was true of Gerald Finzi's Let Us Garlands Bring, a setting of poems by Shakespeare that is all too often heard in voice student recitals (I have accompanied them in that sort of setting more than once). Shakespeare's verse already has its own complicated music, making putting it to music fiendishly difficult, but along with Britten, Finzi had the greatest success. Again, brilliant text and unusual music brought out the best in Saks and in his accompanist, Roger Vignoles, who was at his most assured and exciting in these two sets.

Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, Gidon Saks’s brilliant and idiosyncratic singing performance (Washington Post, June 1)

Donald Rosenberg, Stepping out of the ensemble: Opera singers Brewer, Saks plan solo recitals for Art Song Festival (Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 20)
An opening Handel set was less felicitous, unexpected given that Saks has recorded Handel with some fine ensembles: perhaps the pairing with the smaller sound of the piano brought out the nervous, overlarge side of his voice, leaving the runs a little fuzzy and his tone too stressed when he tried to compress it. A high point came in a surprise appearance by National Symphony Orchestra principal horn player Martin Hackleman, who played the horn part in "Va tacito e nascosto" from Giulio Cesare in Egitto. In a side note, it was announced that Hackleman will be retiring from the NSO at the end of next this season -- as it turns out, the first in a number of announcements of impending personnel changes at the local band (more on that later) that will be one of the lasting marks of the Christoph Eschenbach era. Songs that encouraged Saks's more melodramatic side took him too far over the top in many ways. John Musto's Shadow of the Blues elicited some exaggerated American vernacular and off-pitch tone; Jacques Ibert's Don Quichotte made for an awfully robust sound for the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance. A set of "Victorian Parlor Songs" were really from the Edwardian era, the sort of thing the characters in Downton Abbey might sing or play on the newfangled Victrola. This sort of sentimental old song has intrigued many singers, including Christine Brewer, but it works best with a more reserved style of performance, something more natural rather than dramatic. The choice of Sondheim for encores was another miscalculation along the same wrong path.

Patricia O'Kelly, the Managing Director of Media Relations for the NSO, has informed me that Martin Hackleman, the orchestra's principal horn player, has resigned, not retired, effective at the end of this season.

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