Elza van den Heever took the stage of Zankel Hall last night: tall, regal, and impressive. (The woman, I mean, not the hall, although the hall has attractive qualities as well.) The audience cheered lustily, as though expecting to hear something good—as though they had heard something good before, too. Elza van den Heever is a South African soprano. Last month, she sang the title role of Handel’s Rodelinda at the Metropolitan Opera. Last night, she gave a recital, in the company of the pianist Vlad Iftinca, a fine musician.
Their program featured the familiar, or standard, and something offbeat. The offbeat was a set of songs by Pieter de Villiers, a South African composer who lived from 1924 to 2015. Van den Heever likes to share songs in Afrikaans. She is in a long, wonderful tradition of singers who spread songs from their homelands—spread them all around the world.
The program was very peculiarly organized—which is not to say badly organized. It began with the Seven Early Songs of Berg. It continued with the South African songs. Then there was intermission. The second half started with the Wesendonck Lieder of Wagner. Can you sing something after “Träume,” the final song, that transcendent wonder? Should you? Often, “Träume” is a recital-closer (or a first-half closer). Van den Heever and Iftinca ended their program with something Classical. In other words, they went backward in time. They gave us “Ah! perfido,” by Beethoven. Usually, this is a recital-opener, rather than a closer.
Leontyne Price was known to begin a recital with “Ah! perfido” (as on this occasion in Salzburg, 1975). I once heard Alessandra Marc do the same.
In any event, last night’s program was very appealing, however organized.
Van den Heever has a big voice, and it was a pleasure to hear it in Zankel Hall, a chamber hall. She let the voice out when she wanted to, chamber hall or not. Recital or not. And when she wanted to toss off a phrase quietly, almost as an aside—that was not a problem either. Everything can be heard. Zankel Hall is an “exposing” hall, laying a singer bare. A singer has to be ready for it, and this one was.
She sang her Berg songs competently. Mr. Iftinca contributed some lovely phrases. At the end of “Traumegekrönt,” Van den Heever sang a brave soft high G. Do I have a complaint about the Berg songs? Only this. I would have liked a song such as “Im Zimmer” dearer, or more gentle—more inward. Van den Heever tended to be “presentational.” Here I am, a soprano, presenting an art song. This is different from . . . just singin’ it.
The songs by Pieter de Villiers are the Seven Boerneef Songs, so called because the poet is Boerneef, the pen name of I. W. van der Merwe (1897–1967). He was a folk poet. And these songs are sort of half folk, half classical—or three quarters classical, one quarter folk. They are charming, and skillful. They are witty, comic, sweet, sad (or at least wistful). I thought, “Sort of a South African Grieg.” Van den Heever took great pleasure in singing these songs, and she communicated that pleasure to the audience. Iftinca played with a smile—I mean, a smile in the music. It was fascinating to hear the Afrikaans language: Dutch-ish, German-ish.
Not every day do you hear something new—something unfamiliar, and worth knowing. Add the Seven Boerneef Songs to your repertoire, when and if you can.
The first song of the Wesendonck Lieder is “Der Engel.” In it, Elza van den Heever was matter-of-fact, un-precious. Good. Her Wesendonck Lieder in general were void of sentimentalism. Very good. In “Der Engel,” and maybe another song or two, I would have liked more cream in the voice. More velvet, more richness. Van den Heever tended to be bright and forward. Still, this was her voice and her singing, and there was nothing wrong with either.
About the Berg, I have complained about a certain lack of inwardness. A surfeit of “presentationality.” “Im Treibhaus,” in the Wesendonck Lieder, was beautifully inward, utterly natural. So were other songs. In the piano’s introduction to “Träume,” I like things pretty straight. Vlad Iftinca went in for some pauses. Not wrong, per se, but irksome to some of us.
Nonetheless, this was a beautiful and intelligent account of the Wesendonck Lieder, Wagner’s anticipation of Isolde.
At last, “Ah! perfido.” Van den Heever was in her element. She did not do any better singing all night. She was thoroughly Classical. The voice was focused, the rhythm was correct. The music seemed to fit her mouth to a T. She was Italianate, from first note to the last. (Never mind that this is Beethoven. “Ah! perfido” is an Italian concert aria.) Her high B flats at the end went through my head like lasers. A thrilling finish.
And yet there were encores, three of them, and good ones. First, another Afrikaans song—so beautifully and gratefully sung. I believe it was “My siel is siek van heimwee”—“My soul is sick with nostalgia”—by P. J. Lemmer. Because I hold this song in my head? No, because Van den Heever sang it in 2014, when she appeared in Weill Recital Hall. (For my review, go here.)
In any case, she next sang “Silent Noon,” by Vaughan Williams. Many of us learned this song from Kathleen Ferrier or Janet Baker, one or the other. From Van den Heever and Iftinca, it was wonderful. The soprano was sucking gas at the end, it seemed—did she fail to phonate?—but this mattered little.
As I sat there, I couldn’t help burning at Britten and his circle—who mocked Vaughan Williams as a dusty relic. Did any of them write a song better than “Silent Noon”? It is an exemplary marriage of words (Dante Gabriel Rossetti) and music.
I thought she should have stopped with “Silent Noon”—but Van den Heever came out for one more, the most common encore in voice recitals, in my experience: “Zueignung,” Strauss’s song of gratitude.
They say the song recital is dying, or some people do. No one will sit through such a thing. No one has the patience these days. The song recital is a dusty relic itself. God, I hope not. There is not a more satisfying event in music—especially when the recital is distinguished, as last night’s was, for sure.