Fine French Wine
Alice Tully Hall
Henri Duparc: 7 Songs
Hector Berlioz: from Les Nuits d'ete
Claude Debussy: Fetes Galantes II
Jacques Ibert: Chansons de Don Quichotte
Francis Poulenc: Chansons Gaillardes
Jose van Dam (bass)
Maciej Pikulski (piano)
One of the most delightful ways to spend a Sunday afternoon is to attend a song recital at Lincoln Center. The civilized starting time of 2:00 allows for a leisurely champagne brunch and yet is early enough to keep the crowd from dozing. These recitals tend to be either vehicles for relative newcomers or established opera stars who are trying to branch out into the art song repertoire. However, sometimes the performer is a true headliner with an established versatility on both the stage and the concert platform and it is simply their turn to shine and communicate intimately with their loyal followers. Such an artist is Jose van Dam who over a long and distinguished career has done it all. In town to sing Golaud at the Met, van Dam thrilled his audience this day with a tasting of French songs, each set expressing a very different mood.
Henri Duparc falls into the group that includes Faure and Hahn and evokes in his music the wonder that was fin-de-siecle Paris. His tunes portray the urbane romantic dreamily remembering a distant smoke and cognac flavored kiss. Monsieur van Dam hardly had to sing above piano in this set, his burnished instrument perfectly attuned to the nostalgic mood of the songs, his individual words whispered throatily and with extraordinary breath control. Especially poignant were Testament and Chanson triste.
The more familiar was presented in unfamiliar guise as van Dam explored the Berlioz without the normal orchestral scoring. Further, this music is almost always sung by a woman. Today’s version was perhaps not as light and airy as others that I have heard, but the bouquet of the summer flowers was strong and heady nonetheless. Again, van Dam kept his volume in check, almost consciously belying the fact that he is an accomplished singer dominant in cavernous opera houses.
Bartok did it in his string quartets, Schoenberg in his piano music and Debussy in his Verlaine songs. Here is where these composers worked out their new harmonic language, daringly experimenting almost as if this music was meant for their ears alone. The first set of Fetes Galantes begat the amazing modulations of and this trio of songs introduced the otherworldly underwater idiom of the later piano music. van Dam, somewhat of a modern music expert (he has often performed Berg’s Wozzeck and premiered the title role in Messiaen’s St. Francis), seemed very comfortable navigating these unusual intervals as did the always steady accompanist.
Chaliapin is my all-time favorite performing artist, so I was personally pleased to see that the Ibert songs from the Pabst film of Don Quixote were included on the program. These songs are French in character but have a faint Orientalism suggesting a Moorish heritage (fitting music indeed for a man whose name has been mispronounced throughout his entire career). Finally, van Dam began to project into a role (this was a masterfully paced afternoon) and consequently pumped up the volume. His death scene was positively spectacular and it was gratifying to see that the sold out crowd as a whole was noticeably moved by this section of the performance. Perhaps not Chaliapin but an artfully exact replication of his immense pity and power.
A death scene like this is hard to follow, but van Dam intelligently resumed with a ribald set of Poulenc fripperies that exhibited his diction abilities and his flair for the comic. Three encores (including the Massenet version of the Don Quichotte legend) were greeted with tremendous applause and everyone seemed genuinely pleased with such an accomplished musician. His is an exceptional vintage and it was a rare treat to share a glass from his superb cellar.
Frederick L. Kirshnit