La Scena Musicale

Friday, 17 April 2015

Christianne Stotijn and Julius Drake Give Superb WMCT Recital

Christianne Stotijn Superb in WMCT Lieder Recital

~ Joseph So

Tchaikovsky / Six Songs
Amid the Noise of the Ball
My Genius, my Angel, my Friend
If I had only known
Cradle Song
The Lights were being dimmed
The Sun has set

Six Poems by Marina Tsvetayeva, Op. 143a

Four Shakespeare Songs, Op. 31

Traum durch die Dammerung
Freundliche Vision
Schlechtes Wetter

Encore: Strauss / Morgen

Christianne Stotijn, mezzo soprano
Julius Drake, piano
Walter Hall, April 16th 2015 1:30 pm

Christianne Stotijn (Photo: Stephan van Fleteran)

Who says the song recital is a dying art form?  Judging by the marvelous Liederabend - albeit given in the afternoon - by Dutch mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn and her pianist Julius Drake, the reports of the death of the song recital have been greatly exaggerated, as Mark Twain would have said.  To be sure, in our age of instant gratification, the attraction for anything that requires time and effort on the part of the audience is going to hold limited appeal. But if one is willing to invest the energy into learning about the background of a song and having read the text beforehand, the rewards can be plentiful. This is so true when you have a serious artist like Christianne Stotijn who's keen to help her audience to delve beneath the surface of a work, to unlock the secrets of word and music.

Mezzo Christianne Stotijn and pianist Julius Drake (Photo: Joseph So)

One of the very few truly superb recitalists in front of the public today, mezzo Stotijn offers a beautiful voice with consummate musical intelligence and exemplary communicative power in her recitals. Having experienced her artistry on two previous occasions in Germany, I was looking forward to her first appearance here in Toronto, under the auspices of Women's Musical Club of Toronto.  And I was not disappointed. Walter Hall was nearly full, thanks to the very loyal followers of WMCT, and the knowledgeable audience was extremely well behaved, never interrupting a song with premature applause, and always quiet and attentive, a few inevitable coughs notwithstanding. She is currently on a recital tour with Julius Drake, one of the absolute top collaborative pianists in the world today. They played the same program in a very well received recital last weekend at Pollock Hall on the campus of McGill University.

Stotijn opened with a group of six quite familiar Tchaikovsky songs. Very well chosen songs, with a nice mix of soft versus dramatic selections. Her voice, a "true mezzo" to begin with, seems to have darkened the last few years, its soft-grained, warm colours with a built-in melancholic quality is ideal in these brooding Russian songs.  There's a plaintive quality to her vocal production, particularly in middle voice. In soft passages, she often attacks a phrase quietly, with caressing tone, and little vibrato which she adds on later in the sustained line. In the climactic phrases and sung in fortissimo, the lively vibrato kicks in and it makes a powerful dramatic statement, such as the last sung, The Sun has Set. 

This was followed by a group of unfamiliar songs by Dmitri Shostakovich, set to text by Marina Tsvetayeva, a woman who was Shostakovich's muse. Stotijn went into a detailed explanation of the background of their relationship, complete with the political backdrop that explains the genesis of these songs. To be honest, these are difficult songs for the audience (and I am sure for the singer as well) given the angularity of the musical idiom of a modernist like Shostakovich. Snippets of it remind me of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk! I would have to re-listen and study the text in order to really get everything out of these works.    

Autographing CDs (Photo: Joseph So)

Following an intermission she sang a group of four songs by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Well, I have to confess to being a Korngold junkie! His Die tote Stadt, Das Wunder der Heliane, his violin concerto, and the shorter cello concerto are my favourite pieces.  His songs are wonderful as well, although they are perhaps not quite so familiar. I love the marvelous Sony disc by Austrian mezzo Angelika Kirchschlager that came out maybe ten years ago. Since then, a few more have appeared, including one by Anne Sofie von Otter. Melodies just seem to pour out of this man!  Anyone not familiar with his songs - please, do yourself a favour and seek them out.  The four Shakespeare songs are sung in English. The first one, Desdemona's Song, the text really reminds me of Verdi's Salce, salce from Otello. Then three exquisite songs - Under the Greenwood Tree, Blow thou Winter Wind, and the absolutely brilliant When Birds do Sing. Stotijn delivered these with joy and abundant poetic imagination, the coordination between singer and pianist in the last song particularly impressive. Perhaps if I were to quibble, sometimes her top voice would go a little flat and/or not ideally focused, but these are minor issues.

The final group was the very familiar Strauss. Although Cacilie was cut - given the substantial amount of music already on the program, it's understandable - there's enough to satisfy Strauss lovers.  She sang these very beautifully, with smooth, caressing tone, only occasionally she could go a little under-pitched. But the expression and attention to the textual nuances are absolutely first-rate. Standchen, one of my favourite songs, was delivered with a lightness of touch, not the easiest thing to do for a low voice. I loved her sense of humour in Schlechtes Wetter - with that startled look at the end!  Zueignung, as expected, was a perfect song to end the formal part of the program. After much vociferous applause, she sang as an encore, Morgen, with great serenity and depth of feeling.  It was a moment to savour. Through it all, Julius Drake was a rock for the singer. He also gave a long explanation of Korngold to the audience. I am just so happy Drake comes to Toronto frequently - it's always a pleasure to hear him play. Bravi tutti!

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