A soprano and her pianist in recital.
New York often gives you a conflict. Last night, at 7:30, in Alice Tully Hall, Susan Graham, the eminent American mezzo-soprano, gave a recital, along with the pianist Malcolm Martineau, an eminent Scotsman. Also at 7:30, in Weill Recital Hall, Sally Matthews, the English soprano, gave a recital, in the company of Simon Lepper, an English pianist.
In all likelihood, Peoria does not present such a conflict.
Your correspondent could not be both places at the same time, and he went to Weill, and Matthews/Lepper. Incidentally, Simon Lepper is not to be confused with Raymond Leppard, the sterling conductor who died last fall.
Google tells me that I reviewed Mr. Lepper in the 2014–15 season, when he accompanied Karen Cargill, the Scottish mezzo, also in Weill Recital Hall. And Sally Matthews? I first heard her—more like fell for her—in the 2006–7 season, when she sang in a Creation (Haydn) under Sir Colin Davis. After gushing for a while, I wrote, “I could go on, but suffice it to say that Sally Matthews proved the complete package: vocally, technically, and mentally (and temperamentally).”
I also reviewed her in the 2016–17 season, when she and others performed a group recital with Thomas Adès at the piano.
Last night at Weill, she started with Sibelius and Grieg—“two of Scandinavia’s most revered composers,” said our program notes. Are Finns Scandinavians? I say no, but we can leave that discussion to another day. We are talking Northern people, for sure. The second half of the Matthews/Lepper recital comprised Strauss and Wagner.
Nothing English, or British? This made me cross. I was hoping that the soprano would at least sing British songs as encores—maybe “Down by the Salley Gardens,” which, after all, has her name in it, sort of.
In the Sibelius songs, she was smart and musical. She would be smart and musical all evening. Evidently, she cannot help being so. And the voice? At the outset, it was not its best self. It sounded a bit heavy, dark, and worn. Perhaps it was not fully warmed up? In due course, it was in better form, and Miss Matthews never sounded better or fresher than on high notes.
That is good news for a soprano, you might say.
In the Sibelius songs, Mr. Lepper played richly into the keys. He gave one of the songs—about a girl let down by a boy (go figure)—a fine Romantic sweep.
The final Sibelius song was “Was It a Dream?” (not to be confused with Grieg’s hit, “A Dream”). Matthews sang with “composed feeling,” I scribbled in my notes. What could that have meant? She was plenty feeling but also composed—nothing like garish.
Do British singers—and British musicians at large—get sick of being called “tasteful”? If so, too bad.
The Grieg that Matthews sang was his Op. 48, which consists of six songs, ending with “A Dream.” It was good to hear this Englishwoman sing those songs, and the Sibelius, to boot. We will not have Karita Mattila and Anne Sofie von Otter around forever, and others have to take up this repertoire.
Sprinkled amid Grieg’s songs were three of his Lyric Pieces, for piano. The soprano just stood there, looking at the pianist and admiring him. The first two pieces were “Melody,” Op. 38, No. 3, and “Melancholy,” Op. 47, No. 5. Lepper played them adequately, of course, but I bet he can play them more fluidly. The third piece was “Arietta,” Op. 12, No. 1, which, as the title advertises, is a little song. A simple, little, wonderful song. You might think of “Twinkle, Twinkle.” Of course Mr. Lepper played it well. But I would have appreciated less rubato and more straightforwardness.
How went “A Dream”? Both performers accorded the song due strength.
I might pause to note that Sally Matthews used sheet music, all through the recital. (So did the pianist, needless to say.) (Warren Jones was the last accompanist I heard to go without sheet music.) From what I know, it is the practice of this soprano to use music. I suspect it’s more for the words than for the music.
The Strauss following intermission was his Op. 67, the Three Ophelia Songs. Screwy, ingenious things, they require intelligence and poise, which the two performers gave them. Then they presented three of the most famous songs in Strauss, and therefore in music: “Morgen!,” “Das Rosenband,” and “Cäcilie.” Can you hear such familiar music again? When it is in the right hands, and throats, yes. Matthews and Lepper did well by these songs.
They ended their printed program with Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder. The soprano leaned into her low notes, sounding like a mezzo. She was—have I said this before?—smart and musical. The set ends with “Träume”—more dreaming on this program—and the big question, before this song begins, is, Will it transport?
Lepper started the song with little hesitations, which did not help transport, in my view. I like more of an assured flow. But, when all was said and done—sung and played and done—the song did, in fact, transport.
Retaking the stage, Matthews said she would like to sing one encore. It was British, thank heaven. Indeed, it was “The Cloths of Heaven,” Thomas Dunhill’s treatment of the Yeats poem. Is there a more perfect song, in any repertoire? Some of us listened to Janet and Isepp—Dame Janet Baker and the pianist Martin Isepp—over and over. And over.
I felt a shiver of gratitude when Sally Matthews sang this song. It’s only two minutes. Oh, give me an hour and a half—a whole recital—of this stuff!
She made time, and the audience made time, for one more. One more song setting Yeats. Before singing it, she said something like this: “My name is in it, yes. But, more to the point, my brothers sang it to me, when we were growing up.” She then sang “Down by the Salley Gardens” (in, I believe, the Britten arrangement). Is there a better song? Come on.
I’ll tell you one as good—a French song, Hahn’s “À Chloris.” It happens to be Susan Graham’s favorite song. I bet she was singing it as an encore, a few blocks north.
Before I went to the Matthews recital, I told a friend of mine what I was doing—a musician friend who lives and works in Europe. He said, “Sally is incredible. She is also kind and wonderful—a Brit Heidi Grant Murphy.” There’s a commendation.
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