07 October 2016

BEST VOCAL RECITAL DISC OF 2016: Gustav Mahler, Antonín Dvořák, & Jean Sibelius — ALL WHO WANDER (Jamie Barton, mezzo-soprano; Brian Zeger, piano; Delos DE 3494)

BEST VOCAL RECITAL DISC OF 2016: ALL WHO WANDER (Delos DE 3494)GUSTAV MAHLER (1860 – 1911), ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK (1841 – 1904), and JEAN SIBELIUS (1865 – 1957): All Who WanderJamie Barton, mezzo-soprano; Brian Zeger, piano [Recorded at SUNY Purchase, New York, USA, in August 2015; Delos DE 3494; 1 CD, 60:48; Available from Delos, NAXOS Direct, Amazon (USA), and major music retailers]

Adapting Mark Twain’s famous quip about the ruinous effects of a round of golf on a good walk, there unquestionably are people who would argue that an evening at the opera amounts to a symphonic performance spoiled by voices, and it must be admitted that there are also evenings at the opera that compel even the most diehard opera lovers to agree with that uncharitable sentiment. Opera was, is, and will forever be defined by voices; or, in the Twenty-First Century, it might be argued, by the lack of voices. In the incessant search for The Next Great Talent, opera is not unlike any other artistic—or not so artistic—genre, but there is the perception that in opera the stakes are higher, that the eminent prima donna is the peer of Meryl Streep and Dame Maggie Smith, not of Céline Dion and Dolly Parton. This, in essence, is both opera’s damnation and its salvation: potential audiences, particularly those whose hair is not yet silvered, can be alienated by the caviar-and-chandeliers atmosphere that persists in opera, but this can also be the critical component of convincing a potential buyer that a ticket to the opera is worth a hefty portion of a week’s wages. From Peri to Puts, opera has always been and must always be a spectacle, but when it looks better than it sounds the sacred fire tended by a long succession of dedicated artists is in danger of being extinguished. That flame has often seemed to sputter ominously in recent years, but the singing of Georgia-born mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton scatters rejuvenating sparks like the Santa Ana winds. With her début solo recital disc All Who Wander, this insightfully-conceived, expertly-engineered, and lovingly-presented Delos release, Barton crushes any doubts about her rôle as one of today’s vocal superheroes. If the flame flickers, deprived of the life-giving oxygen of great singing, her voice is the flint needed to rekindle the musical conflagration.

The deserving recipient [a distinction that cannot often be applied] of the 2014 Marian Anderson Award and the 2015 Richard Tucker Award, two of opera’s most coveted prizes, Barton has in recent seasons assumed a place among the sparsely-populated ranks of young singers who are fulfilling the promises of their early potential. With an operatic repertoire encompassing rôles as diverse as the male half of the title couple in Hasse’s Marc'Antonio e Cleopatra, Adalgisa in Bellini’s Norma, and Fricka in Wagner’s Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, she is a musical cat inspired rather than killed by curiosity. In her journey on All Who Wander, she is accompanied by a like-minded fellow traveler, pianist Brian Zeger, a collaborative artist whose own musical curiosity has led him to a level of esteem among his peers that is rightly reserved for the best among them. Here, it is virtually impossible to identify Zeger’s playing of any one song as being markedly more refined than his performances of others. The exceptional nature of the interpretive synchronicity that he contributes to the disc is indicated by the fact that one might think that Barton is playing the piano—a robust-toned Steinway concert grand—herself. Zeger’s sensitivity to the most minute details of Barton’s interpretations of these songs contributes indelibly to the impression that, though she is even now only halfway through her fourth decade, she has lived with this material for many years. Greatly blessed is the singer who enjoys such an organic connection with her pianist in the setting of her first recording of art songs. Equally blessed is the listener who has the privilege of hearing the products of that connection.

Opening with Gustav Mahler’s Fünf Lieder nach Rückert, Barton and Zeger figuratively dive into the deep end. Composed in 1901 and 1902, the Rückert-Lieder are among Mahler’s best-known works, espoused by many of the most gifted Lieder singers of the past century, and their continued popularity owes much to the emotional spectrum that the frail but temperamental composer unfurled in the five songs. The order of the Lieder adopted by Barton is particularly effective, imaginatively traversing the common themes in the otherwise unrelated songs. Placing ‘Ich atmet' einen linden Duft’ first in the sequence provides an engagingly personal introduction, inviting the listener into the very private world of the Lieder. Barton’s luscious timbre and generous but well-controlled vibrato are ideally suited to Mahler’s late-Romantic idiom, and the security of her intonation prompts special appreciation of the harmonies, affirming that even if only by a year or two these pieces are irrefutably of the Twentieth Century. The verbal clarity that she brings to ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ illuminates Mahler’s poetic handling of the text, the words seeming to generate music as they are enunciated. In the thorny writing of ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!’, it is the sheer tonal amplitude that Barton has at her command that impresses, her precision as awesome as her power. The purity of line that she maintains in ‘Um Mitternacht’ coaxes the full measure of ethereal poignancy from the music. As in its four companions, the mezzo-soprano’s intuitive phrasing transforms ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ into a microcosm in which an intimate drama plays out from start to finish within the song’s duration. The Rückert-Lieder are not always a good repertory choice for young singers, but Barton masters their psychological challenges as unflappably as she meets their musical demands.

Barton supplements the Rückert-Lieder with performances of three additional Lieder by Mahler, each of which has its own very specific Zeitgeist. The ambiguity of ‘Ich ging mit Lust durch einen grünen Wald’ is resolved in this performance with an unmistakable aura of tragedy, the anonymous poet’s final question, ‘Wo ist dein Herzliebster geblieben?’, answered by the dark coloration of the singer’s voice. The clouds continue to gather in Barton’s stormy account of ‘Erinnerung,’ the song’s lyricism flowing on the stream of her caramel-hued tone. Melodically, ‘Scheiden und Meiden’ is one of Mahler’s most appealing Lieder, and Zeger plays the ebullient piano part with the impassioned concentration of Callas singing the cadenza of Lucia’s mad scene. Barton’s singing of this song is representative of her approach to the Mahler selections: the voice expands as the music dictates, verbal inflections follow the dictates of the text, and dynamics are determined by the score.

The tremendous difficulties of the Czech language for non-native speakers likely accounts in large part for the neglect, apart from its most famous constituent, by important singers of Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 55 Cigánské melodie. Merely for including these brilliantly tuneful songs on All Who Wander, Barton deserves the gratitude of every listener who appreciates Dvořák’s music, but the quality of her performances of the songs, musically and linguistically, surely qualifies her as an honorary citizen of Dvořák’s native Nelahozeves. Both Adolf Heyduk’s texts and Dvořák’s music were strongly influenced by Czech and Slovak folk song, and the immediacy of Barton’s singing of ‘Má píseň zas mi láskou zní’ bristles with Romany spirit: her song indeed ‘rings out so loud with love.’ The sting of loss that resounds in the conjured tinkling of the triangle in ‘Aj! Kterak trojhranec můj přerozkošně zvoní’ is unexpectedly moving in this performance, and the despair of ‘A les je tichý kolem kol’ is transported from the singer’s heart to the listener’s ears on a torrent of impeccably-managed vocalism. ‘Když mne stará matka zpívat, zpívat učívala,’ frequently translated as ‘Songs my mother taught me,’ is the most familiar of these songs and perhaps the best-known song in the Czech repertory, but there is nothing studied or hackneyed in Barton’s performance of it. The mother’s tears that saturate the text fall in the mezzo-soprano’s singing without diluting the focus of the voice. The brighter sentiments of ‘Struna naladěna’ are also tinged with foreboding, but this and the pair of songs that conclude the set, ‘Široké rukávy a široké gatě’ and ‘Dejte klec jestřábu ze zlata ryzého’ grippingly evoke the unfettered freedom and wild landscapes of gypsy life. As she sings these songs, Barton seems to metamorphose into a Bohemian girl, loosing her hair to the night breeze and unburdening her broken heart through song.

Like Dvořák’s Cigánské melodie, the art songs of Jean Sibelius are far too little known beyond the circle of singers who speak the languages of their texts. Written in the last years of the Nineteenth and the first years of the Twentieth Centuries, the Opera 36 and 37 songs are among the most popular of Sibelius’s contributions to the art song genre—popular, that is, within the confines of listeners who are aware of Sibelius’s songs at all. Progressing inevitably to its cathartic modulation from minor to major, ‘Svarta rosor’ (Op. 36, No. 1) is suffused with anguish, but Barton never indulges the temptation to over-emote. The crashing waves invoked in the text of ‘Säv, säv, susa’ (Op. 36, No. 4) flood Barton’s voice but do not sweep her off course, contrasting tellingly with the delicacy of ‘Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings mote’ (Op. 37, No. 5), the sorrow of the lines ‘Senast kom hon hem med bleka kinder; Ty de bleknat genom älskarns otro’ gently but profoundly expressed by vocal shading. The vivid imagery of ‘Kyssens hopp’ (Op. 13, No. 2) receives from Barton an interpretation of touchingly naïve idealism. The paean to March snow in ‘Marssnön’ (Op. 36, No. 5) is no less effective as sung here by the mezzo-soprano, the vernal warmth of her timbre meaningfully juxtaposed with the frigidity of the song’s words. Once heard, the tranquil, haunted eloquence with which Barton voices ‘En dröm lik sippans liv så kort uti en vårgrön ängd’ in ‘Var det en dröm?’ (Op. 37, No. 4) cannot be forgotten. As she and Zeger perform them, though, this is true of every line on All Who Wander. The wanderers of these songs find in this artistic partnership the kind of welcoming sanctuary for which the restless soul pines.

Great voices are ever in short supply. Those who endlessly lament that the first sixteen years of the Twenty-First Century have produced no Flagstad, Callas, Tebaldi, or Sutherland are seemingly content to ignore the fact that other generations also failed to cultivate singers with these ladies’ singular abilities. Singers such as these and countless others—Farinelli, Bordoni, Cuzzoni, Pasta, Malibran, Viardot, Falcon, Tamburini, Rubini, Nordica, Caruso, Muzio—were unique phenomena, no more duplicable than Molière, Einstein, and Picasso. Flagstad’s timbre, Callas’s chromatic scales, Tebaldi’s pianissimi, and Sutherland’s trill are artifacts of opera’s past as invaluable as the now-tattered flag that flew over Fort McHenry during a fateful night in the War of 1812, the rudimentary craft that lofted Orville Wright above Kitty Hawk, and Judy Garland’s ruby slippers, but they are not collectively or individually the criteria against which future generations of singers should be judged. To sing Isolde with beauty and integrity reminiscent of Flagstad’s is one thing, but to sing the music precisely as Flagstad sang it, though undeniably desirable, is not only to be a cipher rather than a genuine artist but also to rob Flagstad of her enduring significance. There are aspects of Jamie Barton’s artistry that recall a number of singers of the past: the burnished sound of her lower register recalls Ernestine Schumann-Heink and Clara Butt, her determination recalls Kathleen Ferrier, her dramatic instincts recall Irene Kramarich, and her range and stylistic versatility recall Giulietta Simionato. Whether following the paths of Ferrier in music by Mahler or Simionato in rôles like Giovanna Seymour in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, she is nonetheless emphatically her own artist. All Who Wander is a testament to Barton’s artistic individuality—and, equally importantly, to the depths of her talent. No, the Twenty-First Century has given us no Flagstad or Callas, but what a gift we have been given in Jamie Barton.