Susan Graham and the beauty of the art song

The fabulous Susan Graham sang in recital this past Sunday afternoon at Hertz Hall as part of Cal Performances 2020 season. She was accompanied by the equally fabulous Malcolm Martineau, pianist to the diva stars. The house was packed and the venue provided its wonderful concert hall acoustics.

The well-loved, and rightly so, America mezzo opened the program with five songs by Reynaldo Hahn. Her interpretation like her voice was warm, and her French graced with clarity, which enhanced the emotional sense of the music heightening the lyrics, all tender love poems by poets of the late-19th century, from Victor Hugo to Théophile Gautier. Hahn, Proust’s soulmate, has been mostly ignored by the music world though he was a force in Paris art circles until his death in 1947, returning to Paris after World War II to take on the directorship of the Paris Opera. Graham’s released a CD of his art songs, La Belle Epoque, in 1998, demonstrating not only her deep affinity for French music but also the elegance, charm and subtlety of Hahn’s songs.

Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and pianist Malcolm Martineau in performance at Cal Performances at Hertz Hall. Photo by Benjamin Ealovega.

My only disappointment was that my favorite song, À Chloris, was not on the program. I needn’t have worried. She sang it as the encore to the recital, and I was pleased to know it is also her favorite song. Martineau had the perfect touch for these songs, light and subtle, loving.

The recital moved on to Mahler’s Rückert-Leider. It was Mahler at his most tender, writing about love, loss and, finally, the renewal of spring. His characteristic bitter-sweet sound was lightened and lifted by the piano, and Graham’s beautiful tone seemed to exalt the poetry and music in a very human way. The poignancy of the songs and their interpretation brought tears to my eyes and the eyes of the person sitting next to me.

After the interval Graham returned to sing Berlioz’ Les nuits d’eté, six rather longish songs set on poems by Théophile Gautier. There is much in Gautier’s poetry that smacks of late Romantic morbidity, shifting the world of love and death into the banal or the sweetly satiric. Berlioz’ music helps to alleviate the tone somewhat, and Graham was offered opportunities to reach way down to the bottom of her range, as in the setting of the word linceul, or shroud, in “Sur les lagunes,” and exquisitely upward as in the setting of ma bien-aimée, my well loved, in “Absence.” One of the things that always strikes me about Graham’s singing is the purity of her high notes, and the warmth of that purity. It’s not the crystalline purity of high sopranos but rather a full rich purity. In “Absence” she gave gorgeous little run of shifting dynamics on the second appearance of the phrase “ma bien aimée.”

Returning after the Berlioz songs, Graham had swapped her long black, green and gold gown for all-black trousers and top. She closed the recital with two arias, one from Handel’s Serses and one from Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, opening up the range of the program. She explained that she couldn’t see singing these two trouser-role arias in a dress. The first was the opera world’s most admired love song to a tree, Ombra Mai Fu, which she sang beautifully, ending with a short decorative run.

As an introduction to “Deh, per questo istante solo” Graham entertained the audience with a story on how she sang this aria at the Met production with Ramón Vargas as Tito. Graham sang the role of Sesto, Tito’s closest friend, who is ill-fatedly drawn into a plot against the emperor. Graham described how she had to sing this aria of regret and grief standing while resting her head on Vargas’ shoulder. A knees-bent position for the six-foot singer to achieve with her not-quite-so-tall fellow singer. Even so, the singing must have been, as it was on Sunday, glorious.

– Jaime Robles