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Vienna Memories

New York
Alice Tully Hall
02/04/2005 -  
Franz Schubert: Songs
Alban Berg: Seven Early Songs
Richard Strauss: Songs

Christine Schaefer (soprano)
Ted Taylor (piano)

Let’s be frank: Physical limitations did slightly mar the performance of Christine Schaefer on Friday evening at Alice Tully Hall. The problem was that this rather diminutive creature had a very difficult time holding all of the flowers that were presented to her at the evening’s conclusion. Staggering under their weight, she could barely hobble off of the stage (although in retrospect, sensible shoes would have helped immeasurably).

But no such flaws intruded on the recital itself. Not meaning to slight the pianism of the versatile Ted Taylor, but it took a good fifteen seconds before I realized that this was going to be a very special event. Ms. Schaefer has a voice so extraordinary that one has to re-evaluate some of the other singers on whom one has recently passed judgment. Luckily for most of the sopranos who populate the various New York stages, Christine Schaefer comes here quite infrequently.

The program was Schubert and Strauss, sung masterfully and of a piece. In fact, the second half of the program began with a Lincoln Center spokesman announcing that the performers were going to offer all of the Strauss songs without any pause for applause. This was especially intriguing as the Ophelia Lieder were inserted in the middle of the set, but apparently Ms. Schaefer wanted to keep her concentration. Also a bit oddly, the first encore was also given without pause, a serenely beautiful Morgen that was not included on the printed program.

All of this was simply magical, but what I really want to talk about was the Berg. Seven Early Songs has a special meaning for me, as it was the first modern music to which I was exposed, at around age eleven or so, and I have always loved it irrationally. Not long ago, I heard what I thought was the ideal performance, when Renee Fleming sang a honeyed and perfumed version with the fine Metropolitan Opera Orchestra under that most proficient of Second Viennese conductors alive today, James Levine. That was a transcendentally beautiful experience, with Ms. Fleming soaring above the orchestra in an angelic manner, but this current rendition was at least its equal, although about as far away in conception as feasible.

For Ms. Schaefer, the songs are expansive but also thoughtful. Surely she can put over the big moments, for example the “Gib Acht” leading to “Wunderland” of Nacht, a singular performance which combined her operatic style and gliding voice, that makes everything appear so seamless, with a distinctively German approach complete with the most sensually rolled “r” this side of Ute Lemper. But for me, an even greater achievement was the sensitivity exhibited in such songs as Im Zimmer with its hint of the magic fire music. Poignant almost to the point of tears for the listener, there was no artificiality or noticeable stagecraft from the singer; it is as if Berg himself were whispering in each individual ear.

My companion pointed out that Ms. Schaefer is close to perfect. Not only is she intelligent and talented, but amazingly consistent in the quality of her performances, even as these efforts are richly varied from Bach to Crumb. Also, my companion observed how attractive she is. I never think about such things, of course, being a totally objective critic. But next time she comes to town, I might just bring flowers myself.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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