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Hush, Hush Sweet Christine

New York
Alice Tully Hall
05/01/2002 -  
Franz Schubert: Lied der Anne Lyle; Ellens Gesang I - III
George Crumb: Apparition
Robert Schumann: Dichterliebe

Christine Schaefer (soprano)
Ted Taylor (piano)

Christine Schaefer has made the grand tour of Lincoln Center Plaza this season. Triumphant at the Metropolitan Opera as Lulu, she dazzled at Avery Fisher with a colorful reading of Berg’s Altenberg Lieder and a spectacular traversal of Mozart concert arias notable for the grandiloquent and titanic vocal qualities that she can unleash seemingly without effort or strain. Last evening at the more intimate Alice Tully, Ms. Schaefer showcased her lower dynamic range, hardly ever vocalizing above a mezzo piano that was nonetheless crystalline throughout the hall. Her curtain-raising grouping of Schubert songs was deeply emotive, each in a different manner. When one thinks of the Schubert lieder, the dramatic ballad does not automatically leap to mind, but this opening featured one of his best, a fully fleshed-out romantic epic from the pen of Sir Walter Scott. Ellen’s first song is an alliterative swashbuckling adventure reminiscent of “The Highwayman” and Ms. Schaefer recreated the diorama of the chase expertly and excitingly while not descending into loudness. The very quietude created the dramatic tension in an especially impressive and explosive rendition. Ellen’s last song, the famous Ave Maria (who among us knew that this justly celebrated tune has words by Walter Scott?), was arrestingly soft and seemed to create a direct connection from artist to listener rare in live performance. Although Ms. Schaefer is operatically trained, she miraculously avoids the grand gesture, both vocal and physical, when singing sensitive and miniaturized songs. The result is a rendition stripped of artifice, although obviously polished by arduously applied craftsmanship. Ms. Schaefer has that rare ability to make one think that they are the only listener in the room.

Although not the subject of the film Crumb, composer George does have some similarities to counterculture cartoonist R. Crumb, most notably his freedom to totally thumb his nose at established practice and produce works of art on his own terms. Christine Schaefer has made her reputation as a brilliant ambassador for this type of modern music and her stunningly protean version of these songs and vocalises was especially noteworthy for its deep sense of musicality. The seemingly impossible intervallic leaps are negotiated with silken smoothness, the elastic requirements, from imitating of birdsong to whispered passion, flowing apparently with little effort (there is, of course, tremendous energy and practice necessary, Ms. Schaefer simply does not let it show), the voice always dead-on pitch and free from impediment. These atmospheric pieces, accompanied flawlessly by Ted Taylor, who strummed the strings inside the piano, drummed rhythms from inside the sound board and played at the keyboard simultaneously, are exquisitely poignant and inhabit a sound world slightly left of Bali. Crumb is a serious (and seriously neglected) artist who uses the poetry of Whitman as a jumping off point for tableaux of intense self-reflection, made even more excruciatingly beautiful by the insistence of their singer on dampened, meditative tone creation. As a young Turk, I used to attend many attempts at this type of performance art in the 1960’s, but what distinguishes last evening’s realization is the uncanny ability of this particular performer to infuse every note with superb intonation and diction. Although I was a big fan of Cathy Berberian, there was always the lingering doubt as to her technical skills; in Christine Schaefer, we have the ideal combination of singing actress and solid, classically trained expert.

Ms. Schaefer knows that to be a successful ambassador for the contemporary, she must offer the familiar as well. Her presentation of the Dichterliebe was once again secure and expressive, dwelling in the more intimate regions of the restrained rather than the sometimes overblown renditions of her colleagues who incorrectly equate overflowing emotion with ear-piercing volume (this is especially true of recitals featuring the work of that other lunatic composer Hugo Wolf). Sotto voce is much more effective, especially in the smaller halls and this singer, having proven her lung capacity in the cavernous auditoria next door, could just relax and let her profound artistry take over. Even in the encore portion of this recital, the small and sensitive carried the day. I had the opportunity to converse with several patrons whose opinions I respect (these Tully song recitals tend to be populated by devotedly intelligent fans) and all were deeply impressed. Perhaps we all simply needed an antidote to the constant barrage of high volume emanating from the recording studios of our short attention span world. In the calm serenity of Christine Schaefer, there was balm in abundance.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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