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Even in the Tar Heel State - or perhaps especially here - adverse weather can wreak havoc on performing artists. It's hard enough to schedule concerts under the best of circumstances, and when the elements intrude, rescheduling is often difficult or impossible. Last week, there was a masterclass involving visiting pianist John Wustman, followed by a seminar centering on some of the poems of Eduard Mörike and Hugo Wolf's settings thereof (with papers read by Duke's James Rolleston and Notre Dame's Susan Youens). These were to have been followed by a Sunday afternoon recital by soprano Susan Dunn and her distinguished coach, Wustman, but our latest ice storm forced its cancellation. It is therefore a pleasure to report that the program was promptly rescheduled for Tuesday, February 18, and that it was given pretty much as advertised.
For this major salvo to Wolf in the 100th anniversary of his death, the faithful turned out in force, but alas they - the faithful - were fewer in number than was once the case for vocal programs in our country. Had this program been given in New York during anything other than a blizzard, the place would probably have been packed. Despite our aspirations here, the Triangle isn't Manhattan..
Years ago, when your scribe was still wet behind the ears (as a critic), an angry reader took me to task for commenting on an audience, pointing out - correctly - that who was there and who wasn't had no bearing on the performance itself. Those comments remain valid, but in view of (apparently) dwindling interest in song recitals, even by some of our greatest artists, it may be worth noting that this Dunn-Wustman program drew a substantial percentage of outstanding singers and keyboardists and other perceptive and involved musicians along with scholars and plain old music lovers and a pleasing number of young people, including some well-behaved children.
Wolf is, I think, an acquired taste, and as it happens, there are few opportunities to develop it. The time-honored way to learn music is to perform it, but in Wolf's case, singers of merely passing ability need not apply - these are hard songs, technically. And pianists? Well, Wolf truly distills all the elements of late German Romanticism in his accompaniments, too, so even accomplished and experienced performers contemplate some of the songs with awe and trepidation. And some Wolf songs are easier to grasp than others. The Italian Songbook has been given here - it makes for a fine evening with female and male singers and a top-flight pianist, and the overall mood, while varied, remains for the most part positive. The Spanish Songbook , not yet (to my knowledge) performed in full here, in one gulp, is likewise approachable and rewarding. Wolf's other collections - there are no cycles, per se - are more challenging to performers and listeners alike, and that's why they tend to appear on recitals ( when they appear.) in smallish groups, generally consisting of the same handful of better-known songs.
There are 53 songs by Wolf involving poems by Mörike; Dunn sang twenty of them, in four groups of five each, in the Nelson Music Room. Nothing distracted from the musical experience - the artists' attire was conservative, the lighting was subdued, and there were no microphones or technicians in sight. Dunn and Wustman were all business. The results were astounding, and in many respects the sum exceeded the program's diverse parts. Each song stands on its own, of course, but the cumulative impact of an entire evening of these works was at once stimulating and - for those who paid heed to the texts and/or translations - emotionally draining. Twenty were enough - that's a fact, not a criticism!
We expect artists to retain control during concerts, and Dunn and Wustman of course did so. Her singing on this occasion was unquestionably the finest we have yet experienced from her. That she was a great Wagnerian means that she comes by her ability to project Wolf with all the requisite power, but Dunn is also coming into a whole new phase in her development as an interpreter; what made her performances so compelling this time were the subtleties in her readings, her command of the words and their meaning, her superb technique, and her emotional honesty and openness. These were, in brief, great interpretations of some of the literature's most valuable components. And then there was Wustman, whose credits go back to Callas and Nilsson and Gedda and the like. In other words, he's been doing recitals with singers for a long time. His bio proclaims him "dean of American accompanists," and who would dispute it? Among the artists who have worked with him is Dunn. Their long affiliation doubtless enriched and informed the partnership the two displayed at Duke.
We ran the full program in our calendar, so there is no need to repeat all the titles here, but it may be worth mentioning that the order of presentation changed slightly from the calendar announcement, resulting in a rearrangement of what became the first and last groups and reflecting the artists' ongoing reflection on the music itself. As given, then (and mostly for the record), the opening and closing groups were: "Gesang Weylas," "In der Frühe," "Auf einer Wanderung," "Auf ein altes Bild," and "Er ist's" (which is far and away the most demanding of these songs, pianistically); and "Verborgenheit," "Frage und Antwort," "Das Verlassene Mägdlein," "Der Gärtner," and "An eine Aeolsharfe." There's no right way to arrange these in performance but, as given, the program moved with a certain inevitability from song to song, providing considerable variety and - in all honesty - some relief from the intense emotions conveyed by many of them. Those who were there will know all this and more. Those who were not are urged to monitor announcements of future programs by Durham resident (and Professor of the Practice of Music) Dunn, particularly when Wolf or other masters of German song appear on her programs.
The printed program was a model of its kind, with a short note on the composer, bios of the artists, and texts and translations, perfectly arrayed to avoid page-turns during the songs. For more information, the New Grove biography of Wolf is excellent. One reason Wolf has long fascinated this writer, aside from his purely artistic merit, is that he (Wolf) was for a time a critic, too - his reviews have been translated by Henry Pleasants and are available in a single volume from Holmes & Meier. A series of originally-limited-edition Wolf Society recordings, featuring many of the greatest artists from the 78-r.p.m. era, has been published on CDs. An integral set of the Mörike Lieder is urgently needed, and Dunn's performances merit preservation. Now that Wustman has retired from the University of Illinois, he should be available for such a project. Here's hoping..