Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung (USA) and Elena Bashkirova in recital at the 2015 Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival

A unique event of the 18th Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival, taking place at the Jerusalem International YMCA from September 3rd to 12th 2015, was a recital of mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung (USA) with the festival’s music director Elena Bashkirova at the piano on September 5th.

 The artists opened the festive Saturday morning event with three Brahms Lieder. In the first “Von ewiger Liebe” op.43/1 (Of Everlasting Love) DeYoung’s richly endowed lower register well described the scene of two lovers meeting in a forest, the dark, the silence and the anxiety of  the young man;  the scene lightened up with the girl’s confirmation of how strong their love was. Then, an unhurried, tranquil reading of “Dein blaues Auge” op.59/8 (Your Blue Eyes), followed by the effusive vigor and nature metaphors of love described in “Meine Liebe ist Grün” op.63/5 (My love is as green as the lilac bush) to a text of Felix Schumann (Robert and Clara Schumann’s youngest child; Brahms was his godfather.) With just three songs, the two artists took the audience into the emotional world of Brahms in performance that was deeply felt, vibrant and wonderfully satisfying.

 Gustav Mahler chose five of the 428 poems of Friedrich Rückert’s “Kindertotenlieder” (Songs on the Death of Children) for his own work of the same name and subject (both he and Rückert had lost children) composed between 1901 and 1904 for voice and chamber orchestra. The piano-vocal version is not an arrangement of the orchestral version but a true alternative version, having been played, for example, by the composer himself to accompany baritone Johannes Messchaert in 1907, and used till today. DeYoung and Bashkirova’s approach to the work was reflective, fragile, acutely sensitive yet controlled, the songs imbued with a sense of the pain, fate, courage and empathy as guided by attention to the text. DeYoung highlights key words with eloquent shaping, with Bashkirova making use of dissonances to affect and highlight the subject. And how effective their performance was of the third song “Wenn dein Mütterlein” (When your dear mother comes through the door) its duet comprising two separate musical agendas, its childlike naivety woven round a sense of tragedy, the short dramatic final section ending on a note of dejection. From the fine tuning of wispy-fine textures from the first piece, the artists’ interpretive capabilities and articulacy held the listener suspended in the fragile  void between life and death right up to the fifth song, the eerie atmosphere suddenly swept away by Bashkirova’s intense, horror-stricken introduction to the fifth song “In diesem Wetter” (In this weather, in this bluster, I never would have sent the children out), its waves of sound rising and falling gusts and squalls in the internal storm as in the storm raging outside. Bashkirova reminds us throughout that Mahler’s accompaniment and voice are equal forces. With the anger of the storm past, the artists shape the work’s final moments with tender, warm thoughts of the children in the next world, Bashkirova taking time to place each and every final almost-inaudible sound into the sound world of distant memory, of comfort. DeYoung and Bashkirova’s performance was a rare, memorable performance.

 One of the two central themes of the 2015 Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival focuses on works of European composers who settled in the United States (the other focuses on Beethoven’s quartets and piano trios) hence the performance of two of Arnold Schoenberg’s eight Brettl Lieder from a collection titled “Deutsche Chansons”, written in the composer’s yet  tonal language during the first years of the 20th century, when he worked as a conductor at the Überbrettl, a literary cabaret in Berlin. “Galathea” (text: Franz Wedekind) exploits the narrator’s infatuation of a man for a woman. Against Schoenberg’s richly textured and vibrant piano setting, the artists pulled out the plugs to express the song’s sparkling, saucy and energetic text (Wedekind was considered one of the most promiscuous poets of his time) the poem’s moral then to be revealed in the song’s conclusion:

‘But to my kisses, darling maiden
Revealed your lips should never be
For the fullness of their charms
Are only found in fantasy.’

In “Mahnung” (Warning), DeYoung and Bashkirova communicate the home truths and advice of Gustav Hochstetter’s lyrics to beautiful young women on how to conduct themselves, conveying words and music with a lighthearted touch of theatre and whimsy, DeYoung’s facial expressions as telling as some of the composer’s piano gestures. Behind their seductive and satirical facade, these Schoenberg songs have some serious messages, speaking of the polarities in Viennese society.

 DeYoung and Bashkirova concluded with two Kurt Weill songs, their gently lilting, sentimental and tasteful reading of the texts referring to the transience of love in “September Song” (from the operetta “Knickerbocker Holiday, text: Maxwell Anderson), its minor-major mood changes affecting and nostalgic, to be followed by the same theme and thoughts on growing old in so sensitively lush and soulful a manner in “Speak Low” (lyrics: Ogden Nash), sending the audience home moved and thoughtful.
'We’re late darling, we’re late,
The curtain descends, ev’rything ends
Too soon, too soon,
I wait darling, I wait
Will you speak low to me,
Speak love to me and soon.’


Michelle DeYoung’s voice moves seamlessly through its registers in singing that feels natural and effortless, her beautiful diction and range of color and inflection making for singing that is inspiring, fresh and always meaningful. She and Elena Bashkirova perform hand-in-glove, balancing ideas and collaborating on a number of levels. Bashkirova is an outstanding accompanist, sometimes using just a few delicate pianistic brushstrokes or more intensely orchestrated textures to set a scene, to comment, to present feeling, meeting DeYoung at eye level in performance that is gripping and thrilling.



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