As a rule, singers in recital are accompanied by a pianist. But there are exceptions to this rule. Diana Damrau, the German soprano, likes to be accompanied by a harpist—specifically, by Xavier de Maistre, a Frenchman. Last night in Weill Recital Hall, Fatma Said, the young Egyptian soprano, was accompanied by a guitarist, Rafael Aguirre, a Spaniard.
Speaking of Spaniards: Victoria de los Ángeles, the late, great soprano, was sometimes accompanied by a guitarist—herself. She would bring out a guitar at encore time. Juan Diego Flórez, the Peruvian tenor, does the same.
Some will remember an album from 1986: Pleasures of Their Company. On it, Kathleen Battle and Christopher Parkening collaborate. (They are an American soprano and an American guitarist, respectively.)
If a singer gets together with a guitarist, chances are their program will be Spanish, and so it was last night in Weill Recital Hall. Fatma Said and Rafael Aguirre opened with probably the most famous Spanish songs of all: Falla’s Siete canciones populares españolas.
At first, it was jarring to hear these songs with guitar, at least to me. I have heard these songs with piano all my life. I remember de los Ángeles and Alicia de Larrocha, in recital. The guitar seemed too soft. The songs seemed too small—too intimate (if such a thing is possible). Then again, the music-making matched the hall. And my ear eventually adjusted to the guitar.
Google is an amazing thing. It tells me that I heard de los Ángeles and de Larrocha on April 23, 1979, in my hometown of Ann Arbor (Michigan). They ended with the Falla. Should performers in a Spanish recital begin or end with these songs? Either-or, I would say.
In late 2020, Fatma Said gave a recital in Wigmore Hall (London). It was livestreamed. I rhapsodized about this singer in a review. I will do some more rhapsodizing now.
She has a beautiful voice. It is essentially lyric but versatile. She can make it sound mezzo-like and dusky, when she wants to. She has a secure technique. Her breathing is exemplary. At times last night, I thought her diaphragm was made of titanium. I could practically feel what she was doing in my own diaphragm.
In one song on the second half of the program—the Obradors hit “Del cabello más sutil”—she seemed to run out of gas. In the main, however, she was fresh.
Ms. Said is a cosmopolitan singer, a singing musician, at home in a variety of languages and repertoire. She can slip into the skin of a song. It’s not that she “sells” a song. A song sells itself, through her.
She is warm, appealing, genuine. Over and over again, she touches the heart.
Now: there is an expression, “People listen with their eyes.” Fatma Said is movie-star beautiful. That must make a difference, right? I don’t know. I think if a person knew her only through audio recordings, he would be equally touched, equally melted—or close to it.
To begin the second half of the program, Rafael Aguirre played a piece on his own: the Gran jota of Francisco Tárrega. Before he played, Aguirre made some remarks about his life and art. He was outstandingly funny. (Intentionally, I mean.) And he played the Gran jota with virtuosity and flair.
As he was playing, something occurred to me: Aguirre had been too inhibited on the first half of the program. Too retiring, too deferential. When accompanying Said on the second half of the program, he was more characterful.
Incidentally, do you know that Francisco Tárrega is responsible for the best-known tune in the world, or one of them? Yes, the Nokia ringtone is drawn, not from his Gran jota, but from his Gran vals.
On the first half of the program, Fatma Said sang one Arab song. She closed the printed program with two. I thought of Leontyne Price, who called herself “an American troubadour.” She sang recitals all over the world. Usually, she ended her program with spirituals. She also sang American art songs, many of them composed by personal friends of hers: Lee Hoiby and Ned Rorem, for two.
When she sang in Europe, she had an attitude: “I have sung your songs; now you will hear mine.” (I have quoted her.)
In one or two of her Arab songs, Fatma Said put a hint of a wail. (In some of her Spanish songs, too.) So beautiful, so touching.
She sang a single encore. When Rafael Aguirre introduced it on the guitar, there were sighs throughout the hall. Ms. Said would sing “Over the Rainbow.” She sang it meltingly. Instead of holding the final note, she did a little jazz lick, downward. It was nicely executed. But so wrong. So inappropriate there. Still, how could you be cross at so lovable an artist?