To conclude this year's season, the BankBoston Celebrity Series served up one long dessert of a concert: pianist Richard Goode and soprano Dawn Upshaw performed in a packed Jordan Hall, Each of these superb musicians is so busy in a solo career, it's surprising their yearly tours happen at all--surprising, but oh-so-fortunate. Their teamwork Saturday night produced uncannily, conceptually flawless music and drew a bath of beautiful sound.
To no one's surprise, the program opened with Goode accompanying Upshaw in Schubert songs. Either out of neglect or, more amusingly, as a nod to the super exposure of such music in this eternal Schubertiade of a year, the program notes made no mention of the five featured lieder. All from the last six years of Schubert's life, the songs in this set must have been chosen out of a desire for heavy and contant emotional contrast.
Compared to the outbursts of "Du liebst mich nicht" (You love me not), the opening song, "Im Fruehling" (In Spring), seemed only a bright little ditty. Still, the performance was commanding, mostly because Goode's reserved dynamics suited Upshaw's light voice well, "Du Liebst" was was a fine show for a voice equally suited to the roles of Susanna and Cherubino. Upshaw is far bolder than most vocalists in dramatizing the meaning of the words with gestures and expressions, and she diverted many pairs of eyes from reading the program to staring at the stage. "Die Junge Nonne" (The Young Nun) offered, if nothing else, an opportunity to hear Upshaw intone each syllable of "Alleluja."
The next song, a slight ballad by Friedrich Rueckert (the same one who made Mahler's masterpiece possible), was the evening's first jewel. As an astute listener remarked, "Dass sie hier gewesen" (That she was here) was ravishing because Goode wove in Upshaw's calm melody among a gently insistent stream of suspended fourths. The last of the five, "Der Musensohn" (The Muses' Son, a poem by Goethe), was a vehicle more for Goode's talent than Upshaw's--his capricious part intimated one of his upcoming Brahms solos. Unfortunately, the lace of technical difficulty left him free to tap his left foot loudly and even to more his lips to the words--Glenn Gould, anyone?
After justifiably extensive applause, Upshaw left the stage to Goode, who performed the four short pieces of Brahms' Op. 119, three intermezzi and a rhapsody. The first of the set, the intermezzo in B minor, is the thing of devastating beauty. Though Goode's tempi were excessively free, his princely touch and his formidable intellectual grasp of the music overwhelmed all objections. His performance of the bravura E-flat minor rhapsody was the best of the four, demonstrating superior voicing and clealiness of fingerwork.
Upshaw returned for slightly more modern music: Berg's Seven Early Songs, begun in the composer's twenty-first year. The music is motley, elusive stuff that manages to sound at times like Schumann and at others like Schoenberg. The poetry of the seven different poets is altogether better and fresher than the Schubert texts. Of special literary value is Rilke's text for the fourth song, "The Crown of Dreams," but the musical hair-raisers were the first ("Night") and seventh ("Summer Days"). In each, Upshaw's intonation and delivery etched certain phrases in the mind: "Gib acht" ("give heed") in the first song, and "O Herz" ("O my heart") in the last. Goode continued to be a disarmingly responsive, if sometimes noisy, accompanist.
The second half of the concert opened with the only overtly familiar piece of the evening, Schumann's Arabeske, Op. 18. Goode, who has such a feel for all things grand and Beethovenian, seemed an unlikely choice to perform a piece written for young, dainty pianists, but the delicacy of his touch here surpassed even his sensitivity in the Brahms.
The regular program concluded with a gorgeous performance of Schumann's Op. 39 Liederkreis, a cycle from 1840, the legendary "year of song." Working with texts by the poet and novelist Joseph Eichendorff, Schumann dashed off these twelve songs in a few weeks in May--have you finished your term papers? The duo's singing and playing shared a similar exuberance. Upshaw's fierce glares and terror-filled voice in "Waldgespruch" (Wood Dialogue) were playfully evocative of the Schubert Erlkoening, while Goode evoked the Liszt "Wild Jagd" transcendental etude when a line of Eichendorff's mentioned "ein lustiges Jagd," a merry hunt. The music of many of the songs demonstrated Schumann's lifelong obsession with Beethoven's "An die ferne Geliebte," the first song-cycle ever.
The last and best-known song of the set, "Fruehlingsnacht" (Spring Night, an appropriate enough title) was the occasion for a masterful performance. Upshaw somehow summoned an even greater sweetness to her voice, and Goode's playing burst forth as if the number of strings on his piano had suddenly tripled. The last verse, which tells of a natural world sympathetic to the joys of a young lover, kindled real romance. It also revealed a hidden order in the evening's songs: in each set, Schubert, Berg, and Schumann, the nightingale made at least one appearance.
After a standing ovation, the dazed crowd was treated to three encores. Two, the Schumann "Erists's" (It is He) from his Song album for the Young, and the Schubert "Rastlose Liebe" (Restless Love), were given, in Upshaw's words, "to urge spring along." The third, the Brahms lullaby, was just for kicks and got laughs.
Upshaw and Goode consistently performed with great subtlety, beyond what the reviewer's ear could discern. Thanks to the Bank-Boston folks for concluding so brilliantly a season of such amazing, connoisseur-pleasing virtuosos.