In Review > Concerts and Recitals

“Art Song on the Couch: Lieder in Freud’s Vienna” | John Brancy, Janai Brugger; Steven Blier & Michael Barrett

New York Festival of Song

Gustav Mahler’s meeting with Sigmund Freud — in an unconventional four-hour therapy session during a walk in a Dutch resort in 1910 — has inspired copious commentary, speculation and even a concert or two. Conductor Marin Alsop created an entire symphonic program on the subject with the Baltimore Symphony during the 150th anniversary year of Mahler’s death, in 2011, interspersing biographical commentary with a number of excerpts from the composer’s works. In a lighter spirit, Steven Blier and the New York Festival of Song used the 1910 meeting as the point of departure for a recital, at Merkin Concert Hall on November 11, titled “Art Song on the Couch: Lieder in Freud’s Vienna.”

In fact, the NYFOS program included just one song by Mahler —  the almost conventional “Erinnerung” — and another by his wife, Alma, a capable composer herself, whose affair with Walter Gropius figured in her husband’s brief recourse to Freud. The emphasis in this recital was on the culture in which Freud took root, and on aspects of his theory that found their way, at least by implication, into Viennese song literature. The result, anything but ponderous, was a frolic through works of seven different composers, with preference to less familiar material.

Rarities by three refugees from Vienna who ended up in the U.S. — Erich Korngold, Alexander Zemlinsky and Arnold Schoenberg — provided a congenial showcase for the evening’s two impressive young singers. Baritone John Brancy demonstrated a natural affinity for lieder style, fine German diction and a suave, understated manner that could also heat up on occasion. Two Korngold selections proved his interpretive range: the high-speed “Die Geniale,” a sarcastic seduction, and the warm, evocative “Das Heldengrab am Pruth” (though it seemed to tax some of his high notes). His witty implications, delivered with refined timbre, enlivened Zemlinsky’s “Das bucklicht Männlein” (The Tiny Hunchback), based on a folksong about a ubiquitous dwarf — in which Blier’s introductory remarks pointed out suggestions of anti-Semitism. Brancy’s lyrical warmth and subtle line were particularly effective in the same composer’s “Und hat der Tag all’ seine Qual.”

The evening’s most surprising novelties were three light-hearted cabaret-style numbers — not discovered by musicologists until the 1970s — by Arnold Schoenberg, a composer not particularly associated with comedy. Soprano Janai Brugger exuded comic energy in Schoenberg’s bawdy “Der genügsamer Liebhaber” about a contented lover, his alluring mistress and her obliging cat. The singer joined Brancy in the composer’s equally surprising “Arie aus dem Spiegel von Arcadien,” a boastful ditty with silly refrain, delivered with astute timing and charming tone.

Here, and in the program’s earlier duet, the two artists’ contrasting styles could be distracting. Brugger’s flexible soprano is lustrous, warm but somewhat overpowering at full volume — qualities that probably suit her better to opera than art song. Her varied, impassioned delivery of Richard Strauss’s three-part Ophelia-Lieder — something of an operatic mad scene — was especially well received by the enthusiastic audience. Splendid control of high pianissimo lines more than compensated for some visual overacting.

Additional selections by Hugo Wolf and Strauss lent more serious substance to the patchwork program and found both singers vibrantly responsive in their contrasting styles. NYFOS regular pianists Blier and Michael Barrett ensured flexible, propulsive pacing, and some fine-grained pointilliste decorative effects. Blier, in an astute comment to the audience, emphasized the psychological role of the piano lines in many songs — “like the subconscious, revealing what the voice denies.” Such hints of Freudian subtext came through with convincing vividness. spacer 


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