Fort Worth — The Jan. 29 concert at the Kimbell Art Museum was another bit of proof that the song recital should be regarded as an important contribution to a classical music scene. Tenor Lawrence Brownlee’s operatic credentials are impressive, but at this performance he distilled his dramatic talents into a lovely song recital.
Mozart’s Misero! O sogno seemed at first out of place when considering the program in its entirety. While clearly in control and rather elegant, Brownlee chose not to make too much of this introduction. Perhaps it was as much a palate cleansing warmup as it was a statement that his art would come from the music directly instead of a paired down operatic demonstration. As understated as this piece was, its text is of unrelenting restlessness. This might have been the first clue to the programmatic intention.
The five songs of Joseph Marx are imaginative in their accompaniment. At times they are impressionistic, at other times echoing of Strauss or even Wolf. Immediately with Nocturne and Selige Nacht on texts by Otto Erich Hartleben, the play of darkness and light, pain and peace gave the listener a direction and hooks on which to anchor attention.
Murphy’s pianism was excellent in supportive presence, always interesting. Brownlee also began here to develop more variety in a storyteller’s mode. Die Elfe and Christbaum continued this with depictions of darkness, moonlit night, and the glow of candles representing “Die vergessenen Gebete / Aus den Tannenzweiglein singen.” A prayerful reflection on the misery of the Mozart. Never sounding ingenuous, Brownlee and Murphy had our focus.
The first half finished with Franz Liszt’s Tre Sonetti del Petrarca. Here in North Texas, these pieces are more familiar in the composer’s own arrangement for piano. This was some of the more dramatic singing of the evening. No pianistic interpretation ever really captures the subtle shifts of mood in these songs, but Brownlee and Murphy showed the listener how effective this music can be. Again, the agony of longing is alluded to, particularly in I’ vidi in terra angelici costume where the joy of bittersweet remembrance is described in the darkness "Che quant'io miro, par sogni, ombre, e fumi."
Brownlee’s telegraphic diction was a friend to his musical decisions, making the printed texts unnecessary. This allowed the listener to easily follow his lead without the distraction of looking down at a piece of paper.
The second half switched to our Texas languages and saw many more in the audience putting aside the printed texts. Alberto Ginastera’s delightful Cinco canciones populares argentinas proved Brownlee’s flexibility. Although one imagines a thinner vocal timbre, his rounded tone paired with his clear diction made the five tunes very convincing.
Following this was a sensitive setting of texts by W.B. Yeats and James Joyce by American composer Ben Moore. These four songs continued the themes of light and longing for peace. Especially effective was the haunting The Lake Isle of Innisfree. Beautiful. The speaker is imagining a place of calm “in the deep heart’s core” with vivid descriptions of the places he can never visit, perhaps representing his longing for that peace he will never experience for himself.
Damien Sneed’s refreshing, jazz-infused Arrangements of Negro Spirituals completed the recital. Some were more traditionally tilted than others. But those that took a new look at the harmonic coloring of these familiar melodies were the most interesting. Here Brownlee was at home. His directional freedom with each was a pleasing finish to the evening. Appropriately, the final selection was again longing for peace: “I’ve been praying for such a long time, / praying for some peace of mind. / … / Waiting and waiting”
Brownlee certainly has an impressive command over his instrument. Never did we hear an ounce of unintentional strain. Moments where drama was called for, he delivered musically and good taste. The Piano Pavilion itself was a contribution to the enjoyment of this recital; its design is at once intimate but resonate enough for the sound to develop. One hopes to hear more song recitals here in the future.