21 January 2019

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: D. Scarlatti, J. Brahms, C. Franck, E. Chausson, E. Chabrier, J. M. Jarrett, & J. W. Work III — Donald Hartmann and Ināra Zandmane in recital (UNCG School of Music Recital Hall, 20 January 2019)

IN REVIEW: Bass-baritone DONALD HARTMANN, UNCG School of Music recitalist on 20 January 2019 [Photograph © by Donald Hartmann]DOMENICO SCARLATTI (1685 – 1757), JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833 – 1897), CÉSAR FRANCK (1822 – 1890), ERNEST CHAUSSON (1855 – 1899), EMMANUEL CHABRIER (1841 – 1894), JACK M. JARRETT (born 1938), and JOHN WESLEY WORK III (1901 – 1967): Recital by Donald Hartmann, bass-baritone, and Ināra Zandmane, piano [University of North Carolina at Greensboro School of Music Recital Hall, Greensboro, North Carolina, USA; 20 January 2019]

Song is a wondrous thing, at once stupefyingly simple and complicatedly contrived. Children can master it artlessly, but it can elude the most revered artists. To sing is to simultaneously inhabit two planes, traversing the parallel poetry of melody and tonality of words. In mathematics, it is posited that a line at infinity completes an affine plane, providing a point at which parallel lines, never uniting in tangible reality, ultimately intersect. Infinity is the realm of song, its improbable intersections of music and words facilitating innumerable variations of psychological interaction. It is in these tuneful collisions of sounds and syllables that the true artist finds the most perfect meaning of song, the art of revealing the sublime that lurks within the obvious.

Even amongst the most ardent music aficionados, connoisseurs of song are unique creatures. Memories of cherished performances are honored like battle scars. Storied Lieder singers and accompanists are their Pattons and Eisenhowers. For the lover of Art Song, a recital in which singer and accompanist earn recognition as collaborative artists is an occasion of significance commensurate with its rarity. To perform Lieder is not difficult, but to descend in four or five minutes’ duration into the depths of a song demands resources of communal concentration and musicality that exceed the capacities of some artists. Cognizance of the limitations of their abilities and challenging themselves to surpass them are vital aspects of earnest musicians’ artistry, and these qualities are the foundation upon which bass-baritone Donald Hartmann and pianist Ināra Zandmane built a recital that was a palpable, unmistakably personal musical journey from beginning to end. Presenting faculty recitals is often a contractual obligation, a fact that in some instances is all too apparent, but this was a recital focused on exploring and expanding artists’ faculties.

Celebrating four decades on the operatic stage not by boasting of enviable statistics and critical acclaim but by continuing to meticulously and lovingly hone his craft [whilst preparing for this recital, he was also rehearsing the rôle of Zuniga in North Carolina Opera’s production of Bizet’s Carmen], Hartmann offered the Greensboro audience a cohesive, intelligently-ordered programme distinguished by singing with emotional introspection that contrasted markedly with his exhilaratingly uninhibited comedic operatic characterizations. It is tempting to question whether the buffa or the seria more accurately reflects the essence of this artist, but is not the foremost lesson taught by Shakespeare’s and Verdi’s Falstaffs that laughter and tears are triggered by different combinations of the same stimuli? Hartmann’s portrayals of Rossini’s Bartolo and Don Magnifico are particularly satisfying because their hilarity is complemented by virility and vulnerability. In comedy, he reminds audiences that foppishness and foolishness are not identical, interchangeable concepts. In this recital, he asked the listener to recognize that the shadows in which men hide in their darkest hours cannot exist without the light from which they flee.

Hartmann’s voice is an instrument that can be both cavernous and caressing, and the aural potency of his Stygian timbre was heightened by the finesse of Zandmane’s playing, not least in the Baroque piece with which they boldly launched the recital. Likely adapted from an earlier composition for soprano, Domenico Scarlatti’s cantata da camera for bass and basso continuo ‘Amenissimi prati, fiorite piagge’ did not appear in print in an academically-credible critical edition until 1971, after which time the piece was recorded by Early Musical specialist Max von Egmond and occasionally sung in recital by José van Dam. His lauded command of Rossinian bravura writing notwithstanding, Hartmann is not the sort of singer expected to excel in Baroque music, but he shares Samuel Ramey’s aptitude for adapting his technique to the requirements of music like Scarlatti’s.

Hartmann declaimed the cantata’s opening recitative, ‘Amenissimi prati, fiorite piagge,’ with complete avoidance of affectation, delivering the words with directness rare in performances of music of this vintage. Sustaining the vocal line with fluidity that evoked the Arcadian atmosphere of the text, he compellingly limned the longing for freedom from the torments of amorous attachment that permeates the aria ‘Amar non voglio per non penare.’ The sense of hope inspired by the promise of a new day exuded by the recitative ‘Quando sui primi albori del matutino’ shone from the music, singer and pianist transforming the recital hall into a tranquil ‘stanza del piacere e del contento.’ The effectiveness of Hartmann’s and Zandmane’s association was especially apparent in the aria ‘Il fior coll’aura, l’aura coll’onda scherzar vedrò,’ which received from them a reading of guileless charm. Moreover, the singer’s navigation of fiorature was admirable despite the intermittent obtrusion of aspirates. In the final aria, ‘Donne belle, se tutti gl’amanti,’ the cantata’s narrator advocates nature’s delights as an alternative to love’s inconstant pleasures. [The recitative ‘Così, libero e sciolto dall’empia schiavitù del dio bendato’ is not included in the edition of the cantata employed in this performance.] Asserted with sensitivity of the caliber demonstrated by Hartmann and Zandmane, allied with the quality of Scarlatti’s music, it was a persuasive argument.

Never hidden from the public, the Lieder of Johannes Brahms have enjoyed increased exposure in recent years, in part courtesy of performances and recordings by singers whose mother tongues are not German. Most renowned in his native Greensboro for performances of Italian music, Hartmann has displayed comparable affinity for insightfully interpreting works auf Deutsch, a skill that was abundantly evident in his singing of five of Brahms’s songs in this recital. [A recording of his performance of Schubert’s ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’ in a previous UNCG recital should be heard by all who value Lieder.] Beginning with a touchingly sincere reading of ‘Mein Mädel hat einen Rosenmund,’ the twenty-fifth song in the composer’s 1894 collection of Deutsche Volkslieder (WoO. 33), the bass-baritone elucidated the subtleties of the music with immediacy exemplified by his enunciation of ‘du lässt mir keinen Ruh’.’ The sentimental trajectory of his voicing of the sixth of the WoO. 33 Volkslieder, ‘Da unten im Thale,’ reached its zenith in the line ‘Für die Zeit wo du g’liebt mi hast, dank i dir schön,’ sung with restrained intensity. Zandmane’s intuitively text-driven playing established a sonic canvas in ‘In stiller Nacht’ (WoO. 33, No. 42) upon which Hartmann rendered the imagery of words like ‘die Blümelein, mit Tränen rein hab’ ich sie all’ begossen’ with somber hues. In secure, sonorous voice throughout the recital, his performances of these songs were unerringly faithful to the music’s innate straightforwardness.

The second of Brahms’s Opus 6 Lieder, ‘Feldeinsamkeit,’ uses a text by Hermann Allmers, and Zandmane’s musicianship again fostered an ambiance that enabled Hartmann to follow rather than force the words. His articulation of ‘Mir ist als ob ich längst gestorben bin’ was one of the recital’s most mesmerizing moments. The words of ‘Wenn ich mit Menschen’ from Vier ernste Gesänge (Opus 121), first performed five months before Brahms’s death, are taken from St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, and the spirit of the text resolves the melancholic trek of the ‘serious songs’ with an effusion of optimism. Hartmann made an honorable effort at the difficult diminuendo at the song’s conclusion, but it was the conviction of his singing that engendered the performance’s immense emotional impact.

The trio of French songs chosen by Hartmann provided the recital with a beguiling interlude of sorts, the relationships among the pieces’ different musical idioms confirmed by both the singer’s lyrical approach and Zandmane’s stylistically kaleidoscopic pianism to transcend a shared language. In their performance of César Franck’s mélodie ‘La procession,‘ the repetitions of ‘Dieu s’avance à travers les champs’ in the forgotten Charles Brizeux’s text assumed a crucial rôle in the song’s narrative. Perhaps the most familiar of the seven of Ernest Chausson’s Opus 2 mélodies, ‘Les Papillons’ (No. 3) is a setting of a text by Théophile Gautier, and the poet’s words fluttered from Hartmann’s throat as hypnotically as the composer’s notes danced from Zandmane’s fingers. The comedic tension that grew with each utterance of ‘comme de bons campagnards’ in Emmanuel Chabrier’s strophic ‘Villanelle des petits canards’ was delightfully alleviated by a wily interpolated ‘quack’ at the song’s end. Though he professed that this repertory did not captivate him when he first encountered it, continued acquaintance clearly inspired genuine fondness. Zandmane’s playing was at its most ebullient in these songs, marvelously so in Chabrier’s music. The effervescent Veuve Clicquot of her work blended deliciously with the smooth Courvoisier of Hartmann’s vocalism.

Asheville-born composer Jack M. Jarrett’s operatic setting of his own translation of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 drama Cyrano de Bergerac premièred at UNCG on 27 April 1972, with baritone Charles A. Lynam (1930 – 2013), with whom Hartmann studied, in the title rôle. Like all of the selections in this recital, the bass-baritone’s inclusion of music from the balcony scene from Act Two of Jarrett’s Cyrano de Bergerac was an homage to a meaningful link with his musical education. The swirling, sensual Romanticism of the composer’s music brings to mind ‘Zweite Brautnacht,’ the heroine’s rapturous paean to wedded bliss in Act Two of Richard Strauss’s Die ägyptische Helena, the voice soaring above a dense deluge of sound. Zandmane played so passionately, expertly discharging the erotic electricity of a climactic trill, that details of Jarrett’s orchestration came to life with astonishing clarity.

Hartmann phrased ‘Let us take advantage of this occasion to speak in the shadows of night’ with the hesitant excitement of a shy lover. There was an amiable but wrenching pathos in his statement of ‘Naught else remains for me but to die, for the voice of my soul has caused you to tremble in the warmth of the night’ that would have suited Don Quixote as organically as it embodied Cyrano—or, to invoke another Strauss leading lady, Der Rosenkavalier’s Marschallin, whose facilitation of her beloved’s love for another is not unlike Cyrano’s wooing of Roxanne on Christian’s behalf. The tessitura of this music, intended for a higher, lighter voice, tested Hartmann, precipitating a few pinched tones above the stave, but the prevailing impression made by his singing was one of bittersweet confession of feelings too tender to endure daylight’s cruel disclosure.

For his encore, Hartmann gave a movingly heartfelt performance of John Wesley Work II’s arrangement of Harry Dixon Loes’s ‘This Little Light of Mine’ that radiated what Quakers extol as ‘the gift to be simple.’ Hartmann is an artist for whom tonal beauty is always a welcome result but never the sole aim of his industry. Rarely is his singing pretty merely for the sake of being pretty, for in his artistic journey beauty is a mode of transportation, not a destination. There were occasional missed entrances, textual mistakes, and negligible intonational lapses in this recital, but the unpardonable transgressions of sloppiness, unpreparedness, and disinterest were wholly absent. Beauty of expression was the cornerstone of this recital, one in which two parallel talents intersected in the exquisite infinity of song.