Mencken's wasteland, a.k.a. The Sahara of the Bozarts, has bloomed and is in full flower. Triangle residents who recall the famous Baltimorean's assault on culture in the South may take heart at the plethora of offerings available on the evening of May 21, which included an opera and a fine wind band in Raleigh, programs involving students at Elon University and at the NCSA, dance and guitar events in Durham, and more. The NC Symphony could be heard in Wilmington by folks enroute to the beach to get a big jump on Memorial Day weekend. And at Duke, in the estimable Nelson Music Room, two outstanding vocalists - among the finest America has produced - were joined by one of the Grand Old Men of the rarefied art of accompanying for the first of two recitals devoted to the complete Mörike Lieder of Hugo Wolf. That these recitals competed directly with the Opera Company of NC's production of Puccini's Turandot meant that connoisseurs of singing were faced with a very tough decision. For this critic, high art won out over spectacle on the 21st....
Performances of songs by Wolf are rare, since the music places incredible demands on the performers and listeners alike. Performances of complete sets of the master's songs - there are many collections, including the 53 songs that constitute the Mörike Lieder under discussion, twenty songs involving poems by Eichendorff, 51 by Goethe, 34 in the so-called Spanisches Liederbuch , and 46 in the comparatively popular Italienisches Liederbuch , which has been given in full here - are rarer still. For the most part, then, fans of the music of Wolf have had to rely on recordings to become familiar with his work - or go elsewhere to hear the songs. Many older collectors got to know Wolf as a result of a famous "Hugo Wolf Society" series of 78 r.p.m. records, sold by subscription and later reissued on Lp and then CD, that involved some of the best singers of the first part of the 20th century, but this project did not result in "complete" sets of all the aforementioned Lieder. In many respects, records helped advance the composer's cause, because they allowed listeners to hear as many - or as few - works as they like, at one sitting. That's a plus, since Wolf routinely packed into single songs as much drama and pathos as Wagner, say, incorporated in whole long operas. The vocal lines and piano accompaniments are fully integrated in ways that make many famous Lieder that preceded them sound like lyrical outpourings with keyboard obbligato. Many have preludes of orchestral scope and power, various interludes between stanzas color and otherwise enhance the mood of the poems, and still others end with postludes of often-remarkable poignancy. Thus the singer and the pianist are of equal importance, and their work must be a total partnership.
When Duke-based soprano Susan Dunn teamed up with pianist John Wustman last season for an evening devoted to twenty Mörike songs, the vocal community was abuzz, given the rarity of the material and the exceptional quality of the performances. These artists go back a long way, and their reunion (of sorts) was very special. And out of the recital, which helped mark the 100th anniversary of the composer's death, grew a plan to complete the undertaking by presenting all the songs here and recording them, too. It was that goal that reached partial fulfillment on the evening of May 21 and will be completed on the afternoon of May 23 and during the following week, when Dunn and Wustman and baritone Thomas Potter will tape the complete set.
Potter, whose appearance at Duke seems to have marked his debut here, has enjoyed a distinguished career that parallels in many respects Dunn's achievements. He was educated at Indiana State and Indiana University, where he first worked with Wustman and met and sang with Dunn, who was one of his charges at the latter institution, too. Potter went on to enjoy a stage and concert career that took him all over the world. In 2000, he returned to his roots, as it were, to teach voice and vocal pedagogy at Indiana State U.
Dunn's voice is a known entity, and she has been far from idle since she came to Duke; it is a fact that she seems to have found the fountain of youth in the Bull City, for she has managed to sing better and better, and with greater and greater artistic depth, since her arrival. Potter is a mature vocalist, too, and his singing is as impressive as his abundant interpretive skills. Together, they were ideally matched - the two great opera singers brought their considerable dramatic backgrounds to bear on some of the most important literature in the history of Western art music, and they sang with breathtaking accuracy and skill, erupting with controlled power where needed and elsewhere revealing subtleties of interpretation and vocalism that concurrently impressed and moved their listeners. They were partnered throughout by Wustman, whose personal work was astonishingly fine - and who also managed to listen to, support, and reinforce the singers at literally every turn. It was quite an evening.
The first recital included 26 songs; the remaining 27 will be given on May 23. They are not in the order in which they appear in the published collection; the presentation was clearly structured to provide relief in several respects - for the artists and for the listeners - because relief from tension is helpful following many of these intense pieces. Music lovers will know some of these songs, from little groups on mixed recitals, or from broadcasts or recordings. Along the way there were some chestnuts, in the first program, and there will be more in the second program.
The May 21 recital began with an astonishing outpouring of vocal sound from Dunn, in "Gesang Weylas" (No. 46), that set high standards for the rest of the evening. This was the work of a world-class artist in her prime, supported by a pianist who may know no (living) peers in this literature. The sound was full and radiant - fuller and more radiant than might have been the case had not persons unknown removed from Nelson the carpets that were placed there following the space's renovation several years ago. (It would have helped if there had been more people in the room, since people are like carpets in terms of sound absorption!) That said, while the evening had some pretty overwhelming bits of volume, there was quite amazing dynamic contrast, and it was often the quietest, most precisely rendered passages that carried the greatest emotional weight. Potter is listed as a baritone, but his voice has manifest bass-baritone qualities, and the heft he routinely brought to his songs, starting with "Der Tambour" (No. 5), served his offerings ideally, often bringing to mind some of those long-ago participants in that aforementioned set of 78s. Wustman kept the piano lid on its short stick, but there was no apparent muffling, and balance with the singers was throughout the evening superb. The program contained texts and translations that can serve as a (large) insert with the CDs, when they are eventually released; aside from minor typos, the only major problem in the booklet was an inadvertent repeat of the second part of "Agnes" (No. 14) following the words for "Verborgenheit" (No. 12).
Further detail in this already too-long overview would not benefit those who were not present, but several special points merit comment. Potter's "An die Geliebte" (No. 32) may serve as an example of the near-operatic scope of these works, particularly since other composers wrote songs with this title that are far more intimate. Dunn's renditions of "Auf ein altes Bild" (No. 23, and a personal favorite among the less popular songs) and of the tragic "Seufzer" (No. 22) may serve as examples of her extraordinary interpretive abilities - and her current vocal estate. Hearing both "Peregrina" songs (Nos. 33 and 34) (and both "Christblume" items will appear on May 23) happens only in programs like this. The first recital ended with "Auf eine Aeolsharfe" (No. 11), the last line of which describes rose petals being strewn at the feet of the singer - Dunn, in this instance. It was the perfect touch to close Part I, since all three artists merited that kind of accolade. There was a long pause and hearty applause, and to be sure many who were there were making plans to go back for the rest. Those who weren't will have to wait for the CD.