Photo: Nicole Crane
Review by Rodney Punt
The competition for public attention between opera and art song has been unequal, to say the least. Opera trumps big time, conflating human emotions with larger than life tableaus, splashy sets, complicated plots, and an expansive musical rhetoric that can stretch out to five hours or more. The opera stage has brought show biz and star billing, not to mention fortunes, to singers like Pavarotti, Netrebko and Domingo.
But if you’re puzzled as to what an “art song” is all about, you’re not alone. This branch of the repertoire for singers in the bel-canto tradition has suffered an eclipse with the dominance of opera, the “ugly step-sister” as some song advocates defensively label it.
Song is in many ways the polar opposite of opera. With just a voice and piano, no sets to dazzle or props to distract, songs are musical-poetic fantasies of the mind. They invoke micro-worlds of emotion and imagination. Their slender narratives usually spin themselves out in just two or three minutes. But within those limitations the gamut of expressiveness can range from a gossamer web of fragility to a hammer blow of terror.
At one time, before the era of recorded music, an evening devoted to art songs was a regular feature in the cultivated homes of the middle classes, especially popular in Germany during the 19th Century where it was known as a "Liederabend."
Last Thursday, on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean as the sun’s rays faded into the western sea, the living-room of a residence known as The Villa Aurora was the tailor-made setting for a rare return of the Liederabend. A Blüthner piano, too often neglected in a corner of that room and once owned by German émigré composer Ernst Toch, added a touch of historic authenticity to the proceedings.
Soprano Julia Bauer and her pianist daughter Alina offered nine songs by Mozart, Schubert and Schumann, spanning the early Romantic tradition in this genre. Taking their respective places in front and at the keyboard of the piano, it was initially hard to discern which Bauer was mother or daughter.
In her mid-30s, Julia Bauer still impresses as a fresh ingénue while daughter Alina, just sixteen years old, possesses a ladylike poise beyond her years. Both exhibited enthusiastic and infectious charm as they tag-teamed prefaces to each set of songs with spoken commentary on the composers and poets. In a recital of about an hour’s length, these two attractive Cinderellas of the German Lied upstaged any thoughts of the ugly step-sister at the opera.
The real-life relationship of the two performers had echoes in the program’s theme. Whether conscious or not, a loose narrative threaded a lifecycle of love, from first urgings at puberty and loss of childhood to the eventual pursuits and pains of adult love.
In Mozart’s Das Veilchen (the violet) and Schubert’s Heidenröslein (the wild rose) two anthropomorphic flowers gleefully anticipate the mating game in settings of poems by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Two more Schubert songs, the early Wiegenlied (lullaby) bids a tender adieu to a lost child, and Der Schmetterling (the butterfly) relishes the wanton pursuits of young adulthood. Robert Schumann’s Marienwürmchen (ladybug) has a child imploring a mother-figure insect to show her beautiful colors.
Four songs from Schumann’s Liederkreis (song-cycle), Op. 39, to poems of Joseph von Eichendorff, switch the mood of love to a deeper, more adult orientation. Intermezzo dwells on the portrait of a loved one, Die Stille (the quiet woman) of its secret nature, Mondnacht (moonlit night) of its yearning dreams, and Frühlingsnacht (spring night) of long-sought love at last secured. The evening’s only encore, Ich grolle nicht (I do not complain) to a text by Heinrich Heine, lets us know, alas, that love has been lost, but the jilted one bravely if not entirely convincingly pledges not to wallow in self pity.
Julia Bauer, with frequent appearances on opera and recital stages in Europe, possesses a coloratura soprano of bright sheen and pleasing timbre that also floats effortlessly through the register. She can tell a story, conveying not just generalized emotion, but all its fleeting episodes - with here a quick smile, there a raised eyebrow, or somewhere unknown a despairing glance into an abyss. By the Schumann set, her voice had fully opened, its warm luster most apparent in Mondnacht's heavenly legato, where voice overtones filled the room with bell-like reverberation.
Young Alina Bauer was at one with her mother in empathy if slightly behind in dexterity. She was acutely sensitive to the minute tempo variations employed by Julia in a number of songs. But the piano somewhat overbalanced the voice in Schmetterling, even with the lid only half open. Alina has just started a journey in the art of piano collaboration which one anticipates will flower with maturity, if pursued with the same focus and poise displayed this evening. Good musical parenting is apparent in her development to date, and Alina is making the most of it.
Julia Bauer amusingly remarked at one point in the program that it was intimidating thinking of the spirits of the great intellectual and artistic émigrés who heard performances in that room so many years ago. If so it didn’t show. Rather, one supposes, those spirits were quickened from the grave, animated by the charm of the duo after too long an interval from such enchanting fare.
Mother and daughter Bauer obviously cherish their relationship to each other and to the art of song, and performed this Liederabend with dedication and panache, worthy heirs of a great tradition.
Incidental info: The recital was given in Pacific Palisades, California, to an intimate audience of friends and supporters of the Villa Aurora, former residence of German émigré author Lion Feuchtwanger and his wife Marta, and now home to the Foundation for European-American Relations which sponsors artist residencies from Europe, working with their parent foundation in Berlin. The Blüthner piano, on permanent loan at the Villa Aurora from the Ernst Toch Foundation, is maintained by the Kasimoff-Blüthner Piano Company of Los Angeles. Composer Robert Schumann, represented in the program with several songs, himself owned and played a Blüthner piano.