Arts & Events

The Artistry of Susan Graham On Display at Hertz Hall Recital

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean James MacBean
Monday February 10, 2020 - 06:11:00 PM

On Sunday, February 9, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham gave a recital of art songs accompanied by Malcolm Martineau on piano. Drawing mostly on the French and German reportory, Susan Graham demonstrated why Gramophone magazine dubbed her “America’s favorite mezzo.” Graham’s vocal artistry is exceptional. Her voice is warm, and her delivery is expressive, imbuing each song with emotional depth.  

With Malcolm Martineau on piano, Susan Graham opened the program with a set of five songs by French composer Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947). Quand je fus pris au pavillon/ When I was lured to her love nest was a bittersweet lament over a love tryst. The song Si mes vers avaient des aiies/ If my poems had wings, with lyrics by Victor Hugo, was an ardent love song. Le rossignol des lilas/ The Nightingale in the Lilac Bush was a fervent tribute to the song of the nightingale. Infidelité/ Infidelity, with lyrics by Théophile Gautier, was a bittersweet memory which ends with the words, “Rien n’a donc changé que vous/ Nothing has changed except for you. Le printemps/ Spring was a paean of praise to the coming of Spring. Throughout this set, Susan Graham’s diction in French was flawless. 

Next on the program were the Rückert Lieder of Gustave Mahler. These five songs, set to poetic texts by Friedrich Rückert, are among the pinnacle of art song; and in the hands of Susan Graham they were nothing short of sublime. Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder/ Do not look into my songs! offers a warning to avoid scrutinising the creative process. Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft/ I breathed a gentle scent of linden evokes the scent of a sprig of linden gathered by a lover. Um Mitternacht/ At midnight is a song of searching for meaning in matters of life and death. Liebst du um Schönheit/ If you love for beauty lists the ways not to love before settling on the right way to love. The fifth and final song of the Rückert Lieder is a sheer masterpiece. Ich bin der Welt abhanded gekommen/ I am lost to the world speaks of an artist who has withdrawn from the world. It closes with the words “Ich leb’ allein in meinem Himmel, in meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied/ I live alone in my heaven, in my love, in my song.” To me, this song is Gustave Mahler speaking through the words of Friedrich Rückert. There is sadness in this song, but there is also strength. Susan Graham conveyed it all. 

After intermission, Susan Graham and Malcolm Martineau performed Les nuits d’été by Hector Berlioz. Having recently heard both Mahler’s Rückert Lieder and Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été sung by recent Merola graduates Alice Chung and Laureano Quant, it was striking to discover how much these young singers have to learn from Susan Graham. Unlike Alice Chung, who took every opportunity to belt out a fortissimo high note, Susan Graham took a more discretionary approach. As a result, Graham’s voice never sounded pushed to the limit, as did Alice Chung’s. 

In Les nuiits d’été Susan Graham captured every nuance of meaning and emotional depth in these songs. The soft ending of Absence, with its repeated refrain, “Reviens, reviens, ma bien aimée, was utterly sublime. Likewise, the ironic ending of L’ile inconnue was delivered with panache by Susan Graham. 

The printed portion of the program closed with Handel’s Largo, “Ombra mai fu” from his opera Serses, and Mozart’s aria “Deh, per questo istante solo” from La Clemenza di Tito. Due to a hacking cough, I did not stay for encores.