Nathan Gunn shows winning artistry in Celebrity Series recital

March 16, 2013 at 10:34 am

By Keith Powers

Baritone Nathan Gunn performed a recital Friday night at Jordan Hall for the Celebrity Series.

Nathan Gunn’s Friday evening recital for the Celebrity Series at Jordan Hall had two distinctly different characters. Before intermission, he offed largely somber German Romantic lieder from Schubert and Schumann; afterwards, upbeat and sometimes campy English songs from Barber, Ives and Bolcom.

The introspective element also surfaced in the second half but there were two contrasting personalities on display in this recital, and Gunn’s stylish vocal gifts proved a graceful—if not always perfect—match for both. The baritone was accompanied deftly by his wife Julie.

The best known of a quartet of Schubert songs that opened the program, the pastorales Im Walde and Auf der Bruck, quickly pointed out the evening’s sole conundrum. Gunn is nothing if not a lyric baritone. He doesn’t have a large instrument, but sings with utter facility—not a single note of this nearly technically perfect performance was stretched or sounded forced.

Which presents some problems with darkly Romantic lieder. Singing with easy color about deep sorrow or loss glosses over the emotional intensity. Still, Schubert sounded tuneful and the reading was alert, if a little prettified.

Schumann’s great cycle Dichterliebe (A Poet’s Love), a set of sixteen Heinrich Heine poems sung with hardly a break, showed more of the same winning artistry if the dark corners were left somewhat unexplored. Gunn’s baritone is an undeniably great voice, and Gunn possesses a winning stage presence. The cycle is hardly virtuosic, although Gunn made the the rapid-fire catalog of Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, die Sonne sound easy, and the high A in Ich grolle nicht showed that Gunn might have been part tenor in a previous musical life. The long piano postlude showed that Julie Gunn’s gifts are formidable.

Romantic despair may not have been fully realized, but the formless anxiety of four rhythmically off-kilter Barber songs changed the spirit. The poetically dark sensibility of Nocturne, a text from Frederic Prokosch, was explored beautifully. And if Barber changed the spirit, a quintet of Ives’ tunes infused the program with bumptious energy. With quotes from everywhere, nods to Civil War ditties, American folk melodies and the Lutheran hymnal, Ives provided music that Gunn’s personality matched perfectly. Nostalgia reigned in Down East, Tom Sails Away and An Old Flame; curiosity (not to say a prodigious feat of memory) were on display from the hectoringly biblical General William Booth Enters into Heaven (with Julie Gunn punctuating the proceedings by shouting “Hallelujah” from the piano at one point).

Cabaret songs by William Bolcom, three settings from his fruitful collaboration with lyricist Arnold Weinstein, closed the set. Jacket unbuttoned, a gentle smile on his face, Gunn relaxed and interspersed some anecdotes about the songs, setting himself and the listeners at ease. Black Max had a noir sense of humor; George detailed the tragic death of a drag performer; Murray the Furrier had a Borscht Belt sense to it; and Over the Piano was a simple loving good night to his wife and musical partner. With a single encore, the Depression-era anthem Brother, Can You Spare a Dime, Gunn evoked memories of the sing’s famous advocate, Bing Crosby.

The next classical music presentation of Celebrity Series of Boston will be pianist Jonathan Biss, 8 p.m., Friday, March 22 at Jordan Hall.; 617-482-6661.

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