Tuesday, April 12, 2016

ArtsFest's 'Time and Timeless' theme reaches its full romantic extent in 'Song of the Earth'

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
The long view of life and death in Gustav Mahler's symphonic song-cycle "Das Lied von der Erde" (Song of the Earth) can remain intact even when the dappled, endlessly evocative orchestration is reduced to one piano, as it was Monday night in a Butler ArtsFest concert in the cozy Eidson-Duckwall Recital Hall.

That's the case when the demanding, often entirely exposed, accompaniment to the cycle's two singers is played as well as it was  by Anna Briscoe. She accompanied tenor Thomas Studebaker, assistant professor of voice at Butler, and Jane Dutton, associate professor of voice at Indiana University, in a performance that often captured the score's full poignancy.

Love of life, in both its sensuous and transcendent aspects, is undercut by certainty of its transitory nature. The prevailing outlook of Hans Bethge's German versions of Chinese poetry runs throughout the six songs. Despite changes of mood and imagery, the poems are saturated with the feeling that pleasure is fleeting and loneliness persists until the end.  That struck home with the Austrian composer, who felt isolated and beset despite his fame as a conductor and who carried a well-founded sense of premature doom with him to his death at 50.

Dutton, a soprano who made her reputation as a mezzo, has enough weight left in her lower range to sound at home in this work. Most demands are put on the voice expressively in the finale, "Der Abschied" (The Farewell), and she was very steady technically and covered a wide range of expression. With Briscoe's help, she rendered the tone-painting of this song's haunting descriptions of nature.

The parting of two friends in the poem's long final section was impassioned without overstatement. The separated repetitions of its final word "ewig" (forever) had heart-tugging immediacy, particularly given the delicacy and rhythmic security of Briscoe's playing. There were a few lapses in German diction, but the singer's emotional investment and dynamic control were exemplary.

I wish I could say such variety was a feature of Studebaker's singing. A magnificent instrument, more than filling the hall, was displayed overpoweringly. The phrasing was well-supported, the text was firmly enunciated — and it was almost invariably loud. The first song, "The Drinking-Song of the Earth's Sorrow," is a subtle piece of music that Studebaker performed with a consistent boldness and not much subtlety. The refrain, "Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod!" (Dark is life, and so too death), needed some darkness of timbre to convey resignation — a muted quality that never came through.

The brightening of his voice in an unabashed celebration of drinking, "The Drunkard in Spring," went partway in capturing the zest of inebriation. But it could have had more sass and buoyancy without descending into vulgar caricature. Apart from the lack of dynamic variety, "Von der Jugend" (Of Youth) was Studebaker's most satisfying interpretation of the three songs for tenor, thanks to the nicely sustained phrases.

But one comes back again to Briscoe's sterling work ("Of Beauty" would not have lived up to its name with a mediocre pianist), which went far to banish regrets that the orchestra accompaniment had to be put far in the back of the mind in order to appreciate this performance for what it was.

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