Wednesday, January 11, 2012

In Recital: Jordan Baker

Last night my parents and Joshua and I went to Saint Paul to hear mezzo soprano Susan Graham in recital.

It is difficult for me to pinpoint why the recital was so unsatisfying, but it proved to be a totally disappointing evening.

Graham is now in her fifties. Her voice has lost much of its luster, which was certainly part of the problem last evening. Graham always had a rich yet not particularly distinctive voice, but the former richness is no longer much in evidence. There was a parched quality to her vocal production last night, as if her vocal chords were in need of oiling. Further, Graham displayed a tendency to flatten.

None of this would have made any difference if Graham were a great interpreter, but Graham has always been a generalized singer, unknown for any particular deep insight. Graham is a capable but bland artist, uninteresting in a peculiarly American way, like the woman golfer in “The Great Gatsby” (whom Graham portrayed in the Harbison opera based upon Fitzgerald's novel). A large and robust woman, Graham missed her true calling: she should have been a high jumper.

On paper, last night’s program was ravishing; in execution, it was dull.

Music of Purcell began the evening. “The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation”, perhaps my favorite Purcell composition, did not strike me as deeply-felt.

The “La mort d’Ophélie” that followed suffered from the same deficiency. Graham has been heralded in some quarters as a notable Berlioz singer, but I have never heard anything to be acclaimed in Graham’s work in Berlioz. Graham’s Berlioz singing is monochrome.

Six Goethe Wilhelm Meister songs completed the first half of the program, one each by Schubert, Schumann, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Duparc and Wolf. At the conclusion of the group, I had no idea why this particular singer had selected these six particular songs—other than as a program concept.

Six Poulenc songs came after intermission. I have never understood why Graham has been deemed an accomplished singer of French repertory, as her work in the French song literature has always struck me as unstylish and lacking in personality, penetration and imagination. Nothing last night caused me to change my view.

Before the Poulenc, Graham sang “Lady Macbeth” by Joseph Horovitz, a British composer born in Austria (and a composer best-known for his theme music for “Rumpole Of The Bailey”). I am clueless why the song appealed to Graham.

The program concluded with popular French and American fare.

The audience responded warmly to Graham all evening, as if it were hearing something notable. However, the audience was being subjected to the work of a manqué artist. A manqué artist will do when the real thing is unavailable, but there was no doubt in my mind that the woman onstage last night, possessor of a fine instrument in her prime, was never anything more than a garden-variety musician incapable of delving deeply into any material.

Malcolm Martineau was the accompanist.

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