Susan Graham brings finely tuned artistry to Celebrity Series recital

April 30, 2016 at 11:38 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Susan Graham performed a recital with pianist Bradley Moore Friday night at Jordan Hall. Photo: Robert Torres

Susan Graham performed a recital with pianist Bradley Moore Friday night at Jordan Hall. Photo: Robert Torres

The music may be beautiful, but the words stir contemporary controversy.

In recent decades, Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben has come under attack from scholars for its old-fashioned telling of a woman’s life from blissful courtship through marriage, pregnancy, and widowhood. Many of the eight songs in this cycle define the woman’s place as one that is secondary to a man’s, so much so that Schumann biographer John Daverio has commented that the songs are “a kind of male wish-fulfillment fantasy.”

But mezzo-soprano Susan Graham doesn’t see it that way. In her remarks before her Celebrity Series recital at Jordan Hall Friday night, the singer reminded the audience that the woman in Schumann’s song cycle was a servant girl, and the fact that she was able to attract and marry a man of a higher class “demonstrates a sort of female strength.”  

Graham’s program, entitled “Frauenliebe und –leben: Variations,” grouped each of the cycle’s songs with settings by Mahler, Duparc, Grieg, Debussy, Ravel, and others to give a rounded picture of a woman’s journey through married life.

The theme made for an insightful combination. Schumann’s depiction of a woman anxiously waiting for her wedding day was paired with a joyous wedding song by Ravel. Sensual songs by Duparc and Debussy accompanied Schumann’s “Süsser Freund, du blickest,” the composer’s veiled depiction of the couple’s wedding night.

Graham, now in her mid-fifties, showcased a voice that had a rich, chocolatey quality. Above all she remains a versatile singer-actress capable of finding the beating heart of the music she sings. Her performance throughout was colorful and finely attuned to the emotion of each song set. She captured the anxious bliss of a woman in love in Schumann’s “Seit ich ihn gesehen,” and her tone took on a burbling energy in “Er, der Herrlichste von allen.” 

Performing these songs involved the difficult task of maneuvering through numerous languages. Graham possesses exemplary diction and delivered each song with spring water clarity. Fauré’s “Chanson d’amour” and Ture Rangström’s “Melodi” from Fem dikter sounded with soft elegance, while Schumann’s “Ich kann’s nicht fassen, nicht glauben” unfolded as a miniature drama, with tasteful rubato and pauses used to fine dramatic effect.

French song is Graham’s specialty, and songs by Duparc and Debussy provided some of the evening’s richest musical rewards. Duparc’s “Phidylé,” with its haunting distance, was enchanting while Debussy’s “La chevelure” was sensuously evocative of a lover’s union, with Graham swelling her phrases to tension-filled climaxes. 

The songs that dealt with death offered some of the evening’s most dramatic moments. Graham mined the pain from Berlioz’s “L’absense” and Granados’ bristly “¡Oh, muerte cruel! La maja dolorosa.” Roger Quilter’s “How should I your true love know?” was a particular treat, sounding with sweet sorrow.  

At the piano, Bradley Moore proved a simpatico partner, playing with a tone that was pearly and deep and with sensitive phrasing and dynamic shading to match Graham’s emotional performances. He handled the filigree of Mahler’s “Rheinlegendchen” with dexterity, supplied a creamy layer of accompaniment in Duparc’s “Phidylé,” sprinkled Sir John Dankworth’s “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” with elegant impressionistic sonorities, and closed Schumann’s “Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan” with softly glowing phrases.  

For encores, Graham and Moore offered heart-warming renditions of Reynaldo Hahn’s “À Chloris” and “Hello Young Lovers” from The King and I. 

The final classical event presented by the Celebrity Series this season will showcase pianist Emanuel Ax in an all-Beethoven program 3 p.m. Sunday at Jordan Hall.celebrityseries.org; 617-482-6661.

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