Susan Dunn, one of several great singers who call the Triangle home, gave a recital in Baldwin Auditorium on Duke University’s East Campus competing with – among other attractions in the immediate vicinity – the Emerson String Quartet. This may have contributed to the small turnout, but those who opted for vocal music as presented by Duke’s Department of Music were richly rewarded at every turn.
The soprano, whose deep American roots – she’s from Bauxite, Arkansas – and American training demonstrated once again that our artists can hold their own, anywhere, anytime, conquered the stages of great opera houses around the world, and there was lots of evidence of her prowess during her recital, which embraced four languages and more than that many styles.
Pianist David Heid, one of the top accompanists and coaches in the field, was her partner, and since the repertoire involved some substantial keyboard demands and more than a few co-equal solo passages, he really deserved the billing they shared.
Things got underway with a lovely Purcell group, including two of the classic songs – “Music for awhile” and “If music be the food of love” – plus “Strike the viol” and, from the oldest opera that remains in the viable repertoire (Dido and Aeneas), the aria, “When I am laid in earth.” If you remembered that one of the first important recordings of the opera involved Kirsten Flagstad who, like Dunn, was a distinguished Wagnerian, then you would have appreciated the majestic power and controlled emotion she brought to her rendition.
Three of Pauline Viardot’s settings of Chopin mazurkas followed. These aren’t Chopin’s own (Polish) songs, which have been fairly loudly neglected during the big Chopin year hereabouts, but rather the pianist’s solo pieces, fitted with French words. They cast new light on both artists – Chopin and the great singer, teacher, and composer Viardot-Garcia, whose music has in recent years begun to emerge from obscurity. It’s fun to contemplate those recitals long ago in which Chopin himself played these pieces as she sang them. Dunn was up to them, as well, and Heid was a masterful colleague throughout.
A single song by Verdi – “L’esule” – served as a poignant and stirring reminder of Dunn’s great career as a leading dramatic soprano of the Italian school. This is one of a handful of songs by the master, but it’s no piece of cake – it’s really more of a scena than a song. It would please this listener to have Dunn explore more of these rare gems, but for now, the appearance of this item was cause for celebration, all in its own right.
But there was more as Dunn and Heid turned to music by Richard Strauss, illuminating the hall with four of that composer’s greatest and most popular Lieder –Ach Lieb, ich muß nun scheiden, “Allerseelen,” “Morgen!,” and “Zueignung.” Of these the most profound was the third, and indeed this may have been the artistic high-water mark of the evening, for the partnership between the two artists was exquisite, and it’s hard to imagine that there were many dry eyes in the hall as Heid began and ended the song with exceptional playing, so perfectly matched by the soprano’s even and restrained vocalism.
But there was more as the program drew to a close with an unusual group of Irish folksongs, set by Herbert Hughes. These were as elegant as the rest of the program, and they served as a somewhat lighter but nonetheless richly rewarding cap for an outstanding evening with two of the region’s leading artists.
The program was a class act, too, with texts and translations of the French, Italian, and German numbers and notes by the soprano and Duke’s resident Strauss specialist, Bryan Gilliam. Texts of the English and Irish songs would have been helpful, too, but that’s a small quibble in light of overall excellence of the recital.
Note: David Heid will perform again on October 29, at 8:00 p.m., when he will accompany four student vocalists in music by Schumann, in Duke’s Nelson Music Room. See our calendar for details.
This program will be repeated in Mount Olive College's Rodgers Chapel at 7:30 p.m. October 21. See our calendar for details.