Philadelphia Chamber Music Society imported a deep bench of talent from the Metropolitan Opera for their final Sunday afternoon concert of the 2016-2017 season. Each entry presented on the varied program proved why these artists have firmly earned their positions with arguably the most august classical music organization in the world.
If the recital had a unified theme, it was lost on this reviewer. The five vocal selections performed by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano spanned four languages (English, German, Italian, and French) and encompassed opera, oratorio, and art song. Although some tonal and stylistic similarities existed between the Dutlilleux oboe sonata performed by Nathan Hughes (the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra’s principal oboeist) and the Debussy cello sonata chosen by Rafael Figueroa (the Orchestra’s principal cellist), both artists offered unique interpretations of their familiar choices. I tend to prefer recital programs that aim for a narrative arc, but it was tough to quibble when each selection so keenly played to each musician’s strength.
Cano was the focal point of the afternoon. She possesses the kind of plummy mezzo-soprano that music critics love to describe as “plush.” Oftentimes, she seems to caress the notes as much as sing them. It is gratifying, then, that Cano never appears to rest on the laurels of her richly expressive voice. She is an artist committed to the text as much as the music, as evidenced by the crystal-clear diction employed across the program’s broad language spectrum. Her naturally loud voice did occasionally feel overpowering, though, especially given the pristine acoustics of the intimate Benjamin Franklin Hall. When she returns for her next PCMS recital in this venue in January, she might do well to modulate her volume and tone a bit more consistently.
In the program’s first half, Cano mournfully conveyed the religious searching of Mendelssohn setting of Psalm 42, “Meine seele durstet nach Gott” (My soul thirsts for God), in perfect concert with Hughes’ oboe and Ken Noda’s subtle piano accompaniment. She handled Arianna a Naxos (Ariadne in Naxos), Haydn’s long and complicated scena, with aplomb, deploying a free and easy top that suggests zwischenfach roles might be in her future. Dramatically, she communicated the longing Ariadne feels for her absent husband, Theseus, as she ultimately resigns herself to a life of loneliness and suffering. Brahms’ Zwei Gasange (Two Songs) was a triumph of silken legato singing, elegantly complimented by Figueroa’s mournful cello.
Her greatest triumphs came after intermission, beginning with Ralph Vaughn Williams’ delicate settings of ten poems by William Blake. Blake’s poetry is famously imagistic; Cano shaded the poet’s expressive words with a full palate of vibrant vocal colors. Shifting between a cappella singing and the simple accompaniment of Hughes’ oboe, Cano made the most impact when emphasizing the religious underpinnings of Blake’s often parabolic prosody. Given the current political climate in the United States and abroad, it would be hard not to be moved by the closing lines of “The Divine Image,” which Cano sung with a sense of urgency: “And all must love the human form, / In heathen, Turk, or Jew; / When Mercy, Love and Pity dwell / There God is dwelling too.”
The program closed with “D’amour l’ardente flamme” (Love’s ardent flame), Marguerite’s aria from Berlioz’s opera (oratorio, really) La Damnation de Faust. Although not as well-known as his countryman Gounod’s setting of the Faust myth, Berlioz’s opera is replete with the ravishingly lyrical music for which the composer was known. Cano performed the aria with melting lyricism, as dramatically connected as if she were performing the entire role. The three instrumentalists formed a mini-orchestra, with Figueroa’s lively cello ably mimicking an entire strings section. The Met has a beautiful production of this opera by Robert LePage that it hasn’t revived in nearly a decade; should they decide to bring it out of storage any time soon, they need look no further for an able Marguerite.
Hughes and Figueroa both made the most of their moments in the spotlight. Hughes ideally balanced the dissonant and harmonic elements of Dutilleux’s spellbinding oboe sonata, offering a sort of artist’s statement on the composer’s famously difficult musical style without feeling overly didactic. In the Debussy, Figueroa did what only great musicians can—he made a century-old composition seem as fresh, invigorating, and jarring as if it were written yesterday. The cellist was particularly animated in the sonata’s second movement, played almost entirely pizzicato; his interplay with Noda’s eternally receptive piano kept me on the edge of my seat throughout.
And a word on Noda: although he was the only musician who did not perform a solo, his contributions should not be understated. The expert support and deep musicality he conveyed throughout the program exemplified why he has become one of the most sought-after accompanists in the business. The warm embrace with which Cano greeted him after the recital’s final selection spoke volumes.
[Benjamin Franklin Hall, 427 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia] May 14, 2017; pcmsconcerts.org.