About fifty people were in attendance in Duke's Nelson Music Room on the afternoon of February 10 for a recital that was much like the programs held in the salons of yore. The new chairs there make it feel a bit more like a salon than the old ones, even if it still looks like a recital hall, and the two Oriental carpets are back beneath the angled rows on the two sides. Now if something can be found to put beneath the center section rows to help dampen the reverberations a bit more..., and then perhaps some attention can be given to the uncomfortable balcony seats? Access by elevator is now possible in an adjoining building with an exterior walkway connecting it to the East Duke Building at the second floor level of Nelson.
There were no program notes about the music chosen or its composers, and there was no oral commentary by any of the musicians, hence the logic of the title as a key to the choices escaped this reviewer. Both original language texts and English translations were provided for all the songs, however, as should always be the norm. The link between the artists - mezzo-soprano Phyllis Tektonidis, of the Duke faculty, and guests Laura Magnani, piano, and John Pruett, violin and viola - was clear, however, from the bios: all are associated with the Spoleto (Italy) Study Abroad Program, described as "...a Renaissance Program for the Renaissance Student, age 15-19, interested in studying instrumental or vocal music, applied visual arts, photography, drama, and creative writing."
The performance opened with all three artists featured in two short works by J. S. Bach: Cantata No. 129, Gelobet sei der Herr, and "Erbarme dich, mein Gott," from the St. Matthew Passion. Tektonidis' German diction was excellent, but her voice, fine for this repertoire, was covered a good deal of the time by the accompanying instruments, which in this bright hall would have been better played down by a volume marking. The harpsichord sitting off to the side of the stage would have provided a better accompaniment than the piano for these works, too; the piano was simply too percussive. Balance would surely have been better and the rendition, more enjoyable with these alterations.
There followed Mozart's Sonata in C, K.296, for violin and piano. Here the volume level was much more appropriate for the hall. The artists matched each other's sound and communicated particularly well with each other and with the listeners. The central Adagio sostenuto movement was especially lovely.
Next came a set of four pieces by four different Italian composers, presented by Tektonidis and Magnani: Bononcini's "Per la gloria d'adoravi"; Marcello's recitativo "Misero! Io vengo meno," and aria "Non m'è grave morir per amore"; Parisotti's "Se tu m'ami"; and Gluck's "O del mio dolce ardor." These were the most passionate of the songs presented. Tektonidis' Italian diction was as excellent as her German, and since she performed these selections without a score, she was able to communicate with particularly appropriate gestures and facial expressions as well. She was at her best in this repertoire. Magnani was a superb accompanist, following and matching volume appropriately throughout.
After an intermission, Magnani soloed with Chopin's first and thirds Ballades (in G minor and A-flat, respectively), played from memory. The performances were expressive and lovely, with an excellent control of the dynamics and again a volume level appropriate for the hall. She is a young artist, having earned her first degree, in piano, only in 1989 and a second--in voice--in 1995. In Europe, she pursues a dual career; this reviewer would like to hear her vocal work on another visit, but more playing of this caliber would be just fine, too. Magnani appears likely to have a bright future.
The recital concluded, bringing all three artists together again, with the final two of Charles Martin Loeffler's Quatre Poèmes, Op. 5, for voice, piano and viola: "Le Son du cor s'afflige vers les bois," and "Sérénade," both to texts by Paul Verlaine. Tektonidis, singing with a score, was again, alas, often covered by the accompaniment.
Unfortunately as well, her French diction, while very good, is not native quality, nor is it as good as her Italian and German. Curiously, a couple of words were misspoken in the final song. One wonders, in addition, why she did not include the other two poems. The whole was a disappointment. These are lovely works that are a true delight to hear. The first is set to a poem by Charles Baudelaire and the second, to another by Verlaine. Stephanie Dillard gave a fine rendition of the complete cycle at Meredith on October 21, 2001, with Janis Dupré at the piano and Suzanne Rousso playing viola. They have not been frequently recorded, and the world première recording on Capriccio CD 10462 featured a Japanese mezzo residing in Germany, Mitsuko Shirai, whose very good diction is likewise not quite native quality, and who also is unfortunately often covered by the accompaniment.
In spite of my reservations about the opening and closing sets, however, this was a most pleasant afternoon. This kind of creative programming and use of local and visiting artists together is to be encouraged. While solo recitals such as Moura Castro's on Friday evening are wonderfully rewarding, a collection of works combining several artists in different ways pleases by the variety that is possible and the connections and juxtapositions between works that can share the common program. Those relationships should be made clear to the audience, however. It is easy to see why salon performances were so popular a century ago.