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Last season's hipsters fancied beekeeping; this season, the monocle now distinguishes these with-it Polyphemes, but for freshness of experience, take me to the Music House in Greenville, a venue in strong contrast to so much other musical experience in this town.
The soprano Louise Toppin joined with her former colleague John O'Brien for an evening of fresh and sparkling singing and playing in a program of Mozart and his contemporaries (except for Fanny Hensel and Franz Schubert, slightly later). The third important performer was the inanimate John Donelson Lyon piano, a lovely copy of the Walter instruments favored by Mozart.
There was some charming badinage over Toppin's little ad lib wrestling with her music stand as she attempted to set it aside before she began with three songs from memory, Mozart's “Dans un bois,” “Oiseaux, si tous les ans,” and “An Chloë,” K.308, 307, and 524, respectively. Toppin's rich voice was unforced and her expressions effective but unexaggerated. The transition from French to German was so smooth as to be unnoticeable. O'Brien, not just a pianist but also a masterful accompanist, matched the balance of the piano to Toppin's voice perfectly.
In the seventy-odd seat Music House, intimacy and rapport are prime parts of the experience. This also allows for an informality lost in a larger hall; there was, at the end of the first set, apparently a SRO house except for about six empty seats not too obvious to the standees at the back. So Toppin invited the standees to come to the front seats; they evinced a little reluctance. O'Brien suggested that maybe they were daunted by the "large black dress." Toppin had on a beautiful black dress of some modern material like bombazine, with several shawl collars and a sheath skirt over a large collection of floor length flounces – indeed, a large black dress.
From the twelve songs in Vincenzo Righini's Opus 7, they performed “Pur nel sonno almen talora,” “Io lo sò che'il bel sembiante,” “Sol che unisntante io miri,” and “Mi lagnerò lacendo.” Toppin's huge vocal range was put to good use in “Io lo.” The prissy little two-part piano contrasts hugely with the beautiful long voice lines of “Sol che” and the piano accompaniment to “Mi lagnerò” is worthy of any silent movie.
Three English songs by Thomas Linley the elder (his son was an exact contemporary of Mozart and became Mozart's friend when they were both fourteen) were surprisingly inventive for early 18th-century English theatre music and were perfectly enriched by Toppin's gestures and expressions.
After the usual wine and delicious canapés, we heard four songs from Friedrich Heinrich Himmel's Die Blumen und der Schmetterling, notable more than anything else as grist for O'Brien and Toppin's mill.
Fanny Hensel (Mendelssohn's older sister) was represented by three songs in French from 1820 (WV 5, 8, and 23), all so sad, but all so beautiful and beautifully sung.
In advance of “Mio ben ricordati” and “Da quel sembiante appresi” from Vier Canzonen (D.688), O'Brien pointed out that although the Walter/Lyon piano is too early for Schubert, it is much closer to what Schubert would have known than the late-19th-century Steinway under its cover in the corner of the Music House. “Mio ben” is rather somber; “Da quel” is a sharp contrast, in a jolly major key.
Before Toppin began, from memory, “Dove sono i bei momento” (Le Nozze di Figaro, K.492), she told us, in the sort of aside so easily done at the Music House, that she had to be careful to get the right aria; “I've sung both Susanna and the Countess; the same recitative is sung by both and when John and I were rehearsing this afternoon I got the wrong one.” But in concert she got the right one; boy did she ever get the right one! All the fine music that went before this was as nothing. Toppin came into her own and delivered a passionate and lovely aria. The depth of expression and little vocal nuances were beyond description and brought everyone immediately to their feet in applause. Brava! (And bravo to O'Brien also!)