On a Swedish soprano at Zankel Hall.
Last night, Miah Persson gave a recital in Zankel Hall, accompanied by Malcolm Martineau. It was supposed to be a joint recital, with Persson and Florian Boesch, an Austrian baritone. But Boesch had to pull out, sick. That left Persson with a solo recital.
The original program was all-Schumann. The revised program was almost all-Schumann. It began with Grieg. And then it was Schumann all the way (mainly Robert, with a dose of his wife, Clara).
Norwegians sing Grieg, of course—he is their home composer. But also, the neighbors often help out with Grieg. Anne Sofie von Otter, the great Swedish mezzo, sings him. So does Karita Mattila, the Finnish soprano. Miah Persson is a Swedish soprano.
In any case, she sang Grieg’s Six Songs, Op. 48, which are in German (though Norwegian translations are available, and sometimes employed).
The first of the six is “Gruss,” or “Greeting,” which is always an apt opener. The fourth begins “Unter den Linden”—a fine name for a street. The last is the most famous of the songs—the most famous of all Grieg songs—“Ein Traum,” “A Dream.”
Miah Persson sang the Grieg songs pleasantly. That’s the word that kept coming to me: “pleasant.” It sounds vaguely insulting, but these songs are pleasant, and ought to be sung pleasantly. Persson also sang them correctly and musically. She was totally unpretentious.
Frankly, her singing seemed to me not too distant from talking. I thought of the cliché that singing is “sung speech.” Persson never overdid anything. She was basically a beautiful woman singing beautiful songs beautifully. There are worse crimes.
As for Martineau, he accompanied on the piano like the pro he is.
One could cavil at the two of them. For me, the second song, “Dereinst, Gedanke mein,” was too slow and a bit too free. In the sprightly “Lauf der Welt,” there was some faulty coordination between singer and pianist. But only a little.
In “Ein Traum,” Martineau played some sudden crescendos, which were exciting.
The recital continued with a beloved cycle of Robert Schumann, Frauenliebe und -Leben, “A Woman’s Love and Life.” I am used to hearing mezzo-sopranos in this cycle. I believe that lowness, and a certain oomph, are especially helpful in the second song, the astonishing “Er, der Herrlichste von allen.” I guess I can’t get Kathleen Ferrier’s voice out of my ear. But a person’s voice is a person’s voice. As Diana Damrau once told me in an interview, “You can’t go to the store and buy another one.”
And this Persson’s voice, and approach, were just fine.
She sang the songs matter-of-factly. She was not doing much interpreting, that I could tell. She was just singing the songs. And she was singing them “on the breath,” with no apparent effort. I thought of the famous advice that Florence Page Kimball gave to her student Leontyne Price: “Never sing on your principal; always sing on your interest.”
Moreover, Persson gave us clear diction.
One song begins “Süsser Freund” (“Sweet friend”). It is such a sweet phrase, musically. I would have liked more warmth from Persson. But at least she was guilty of no artifice. She never did anything artificial in this cycle.
The concluding song, that killer, had just the right colors, and just the right pathos (quiet). The pianist ends the song, at length. Mr. Martineau handled his part very well, giving each note its proper weight. The subway rumbled alongside him. Loudly.
I have been listening to recitals and concerts in Zankel Hall for almost fifteen years now—since it opened in 2003. You would think I would be used to the subway. I’m not.
On the second half of the program, Martineau sat down for a piano piece, “Träumerei,” from Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood. For many of us, this piece will always be a Horowitz encore. Martineau played it fondly. At the end, he fussed with it too much for my taste, but an interpreter has a right.
Of the many Schumann songs, one was Robert’s “Er ist’s,” which we know in English as “Spring Is Here.” This was March 22, two days after the official arrival of spring. Outside, it was windy and cold. But the memory of Miah Persson was spring-like. She is a refreshing singer, and musician.
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