In the last two weeks, the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society (PCMS) has presented two programs that included songs taken from less familiar parts of the chamber-music song repertoire. The latest Musicians from Marlboro program included English songs by Vaughan Williams and a group of traditional Irish songs arranged by a distinguished German composer named Ludwig van Beethoven.
A second program centered on flutist Julietta Curenton paired her with a young soprano and included a group of songs by French composers.
Beethoven arranged more than 150 traditional British Isles songs for a Scottish publisher named George Thomson. It was a commercial job for Beethoven, and he approached it like a pro. His accompaniments are composed for the standard piano trio—piano, violin, and cello—and they’re packed with instrumental touches that surround the vocal line with mood and scenery. A genius is a genius, even when he’s picking up a little extra cash.
Tenor Nicholas Phan grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, but he sang the Irish songs with a style and delivery that would have seemed natural in a village hall. In a New York Times interview, Phan argues, “What is virtuosic about a performance is that you do something incredibly difficult with apparent ease.” By that standard, he’s one of the most virtuosic performers most of us will ever hear.
The Vaughan Williams song cycle On Wenlock Edge was a mixed bag. The songs take their texts from poems by A.E. Housman, a poet who attracts English composers because his simple poems sound like song lyrics. Unfortunately, there really isn’t much a composer can add to the words. Housman’s language creates a songlike effect all by itself. Williams wisely opted for straightforward vocal lines surrounded by inventive accompaniments orchestrated for piano and string quartet. He treated most of the texts with restraint, but drifted into melodrama in two of the love-and-death poems. Housman’s preoccupation with death is acceptingly melancholy, not tragic.
Williams’s most successful songs, on the other hand, capture all the musical potential of Housman’s poetry. In the best song in the group, “From Far, from Eve and Morning,” the instrumental quintet surrounded Phan with a shimmering musical aura as his stance and delivery portrayed the mortal, transient spirit at the heart of the poem.
Romance a la mode
Julietta Curenton is a rising flute star who made a hit in a previous PCMS appearance. For her return visit, she joined soprano Karen Slack and pianist Lura Johnson in a program devoted to music by French composers.
Art-song connoisseurs usually maintain that the German lieder tradition is the pinnacle of the genre. I’m more inclined to favor the French tradition; in the French musical universe, people can fall in love and engage in flirtation without committing suicide or roaming the world pining for something they can’t have.
In one of the songs on this program, a cavalier is surprised by an attractive young woman, but the encounter doesn’t end in lifelong heartbreak. The cavalier merely experiences heartbeats that feel like hammer blows, like any susceptible young man.
The flute is a central instrument in French chamber music, and the songs all treated it as a full partner with Karen Slack’s beautiful, clear soprano. The flute colored the moods and added bits, like a clever exchange between Slack and Curenton’s imitation of a nightingale’s vocalizations.
Slack’s voice filled Benjamin Franklin Hall, but she never forgot she was singing songs, not go-for-the-rafters operatic arias.
Both of these programs interleaved the songs with instrumental items. Curenton’s strong tone and solid mastery of her instrument produced spirited, engaging performances of pieces by a group of composers that included Poulenc and Messiaen. Lura Johnson’s liquid, flowing keyboard work decorated every item on the program. One of the concert’s high points was a dialogue between a singing flute and a singing piano in a suite by Charles-Marie Widor.
The Musicians from Marlboro program opened with a Haydn string quartet that included a slow movement built around a melody that was a close relative of the Irish songs. The musicians sounded like they hadn’t quite worked out their approach to the quartet, but the slow movement linked the songs to another composer who created arrangements for George Thomson. The Beethoven quartet that ended the program provided another look at the canny businessman spotlighted in its first half.