Isabel Leonard and Sharon Isbin in recital

A program of neglected gems

The pairing of guitarist Sharon Isbin and mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard showed how edifying an intimate recital can be. Leonard switched from her familiar Mozart and Rossini to salon music by Spanish composers with guitar accompaniment.

An edifying recital: Isbin (left) and Leonard. (Photo via pcmsconcerts.org)

These days, opera stars rarely appear in recitals at which they can display other sides of their personalities — and skills — in a non-operatic repertoire. The Academy of Music used to present at least eight vocal recitals each season, sponsored by The Philadelphia Inquirer. The Kimmel Center has shied away from recital bookings, apparently feeling there’s insufficient demand, and the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, which uses the Kimmel’s Perelman Theater, scheduled only three vocal recitals for the 2015-16 season. (They recently announced that there will be six recitals in the 2016-17 season.)

Even within the rarified genre of vocal recitals, Spanish music has been neglected. In the past, singers relied on Italian and German songs and arias, and occasionally something in French. The neglect of Spanish music hasn’t been corrected today — a shocking omission in these days when building audiences is such a great concern, considering the large number of Spanish-speaking people in the United States.  

Spanish miniatures

The Spanish miniatures on this program were written for the lower-middle register of a woman’s voice, with hardly any high notes that beg for applause. The recital thus showcased the warm timbre of Leonard’s tones, her finesse, her coloring, and her expressivity. Many others compete with Leonard in the standard roles, but in this repertoire she is able to stand out. Her mother is from Argentina, and Leonard is at home with the Spanish language and its culture.

Although Isbin has been better-known among aficionados, Leonard was given top billing on the program, and provided most of the explanatory talk. I would have liked more detailed verbal descriptions of the songs, which were unfamiliar to the audience. Texts were in the program but it was hard to read them because the house lights were lowered and, of course, attendees didn’t want to take their eyes off these performers.

Intelligently chosen material

Isbin provided soft and subtle accompaniment. Between the vocal sections, she played solo pieces: “Andaluza” by Enrique Granados, “Asturias” by Isaac Albéniz in an arrangement by Isbin’s teacher Andres Segovia, and Francisco Tárrega’s “Recuerdos de la Alhambra.” In this reminiscence of the gorgeous palace in Granada, the rippling cascade of notes by Isbin’s right hand conjured an image of Alhambra’s fountains.

The intelligently chosen material included arrangements of folk tunes by Spanish Civil War-era poet and playwright Federico García Lorca, Manuel de Falla’s “Siete canciones populares españolas (Seven Popular Spanish songs),” and songs by Xavier Montsalvatge from his “Canciónes negras.” Montsalvatge’s composition made the most vivid impression because of its contrast of a simple lullaby with tart, unexpected harmonies.

In Rodrigo’s “Aranjuez ma pensée,” based on the second movement of his famous guitar concerto, the composer’s wife provided the text. Recovering from the loss of their infant and her severe illness, she wrote lyrics about the happy days when the two of them were younger. Other songs told stories about bullfighters, gypsies, and lovers. Isbin and Leonard ended the evening with the exciting “Granada” by Augustin Lara.

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