Fort Worth — There is little doubt that mezzo-soprano Susan Graham is one of the great voices of our generation. Her voice is immaculately trained, even from top to bottom, and is capable of producing both a huge sound and lovely floated pianissimo phrases. Plus, she is a Texan! She is also exceptionally versatile. Her repertoire is varied, from her star turn in Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea to Sister Helen Prejean in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, and even Richard Strauss’ Salome, which she will sing in April for Houston Grand Opera.
Graham and pianist Malcom Martineau have been traveling with a concert entitled “An Evening with Susan Graham.” The tour opened in New York City’s Alice Tully Hall of Lincoln Center’s Great Performers concert series and ended in Fort Worth as part of The Cliburn’s 2019-2020 concert series, performed at the Kimbell Art Museum’s Piano Pavilion auditorium.
Her program could hardly be more diverse, with a list of composers from Ned Rorem to Robert Schumann. In fact, it was Schumann’s song cycle, Frauenliebe und -leben (A Woman's Love and Life) on poems by Adelbert von Chamisso, that formed the skeleton on which she added and international bevy of songs to fill out the story. The songs tell, from the woman’s point of view, the story of falling in love, marriage, children, and finally dealing her husband’s death. In light of this, it was odd that there wasn’t a single song written by a woman. All the way along, Martineau made musical commentary of his own in the way he colored the piano part. He was no mere accompanist.
Graham and Martineau separated the nine songs of Schumann’s cycle, making each one a “chapter” of the recital, with three or four songs by other composers added as either comment or reflection as the drama progressed. This format is a clever way of structuring a recital which usually has an unrelated English, French, and German section that sometimes covers a wide or narrow historical range. This format allowed Graham to do all of that but in a uniquely fascinating manner. Thus, it was subtitled “Frauenliebe und -leben: Variations.”
Dramatically, Graham was always expressive of the text. Physically she started out with the conventional art song reserve but opened up as the recital progressed to the point of dancing around for her encore. Vocally she was in tip-top shape, with only a very few high and very soft notes not working exactly as she wished. That aside, few singers can boast of such consistency in an entire recital where the burden falls on one performer for two or more hours.
Graham and Martineau presented the songs in the order they appear in the cycle for a good reason. Each one discusses different but chronological events. The first, “Seit ich ihn gesehen” (“Since I Saw Him”), describes that elusive feeling of love at first sight. Supposedly, the woman narrator was a servant in this paragon’s household, so her thrill of love may have been tinged with hopelessness. Graham ably expressed this dichotomy.
Added to this first chapter was “The Encounter,” from Edvard Grieg’s Haugtussa, Op. 67, No. 4, sung in the original Nynorsk (egads!). This was followed by Richard Strauss’ “Since Your Eyes First Looked into Mine” from Seitdem dein Aug’in meines schaute, Op. 17, No. 1.
Chapter two brought a change in Graham’s demeanor as hope began to raise its head in the second song in Schumann’s cycle “Er, der Herrlichste von allen” ("He, the Noblest of All"). That hope was expressed differently in John Dankworth’s setting of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (“Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?”). The next song elaborated on the subject and was another Nordic language: “Melody” from Swedish composer Ture Rangström’s Fem dikter.
I could continue to go through each chapter with the attendant three or so related songs, but this review would stretch beyond 1,000 words, and with as many superlevel adjectives. It would be tedious to read and a disservice to the concert itself which felt like it was over in minutes. When she reached the final song of the cycle concerning the death of her beloved, “Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan” ("Now You Have Caused me Pain for the First Time"), we were all captured by both the pain and beginnings of acceptance in Graham’s delivery. Personally, I felt like a best friend that I hadn’t seen in a long time was telling her story, bringing me up to date.
The encore was a welcome cheerer-upper, “Hello, Young Lovers” from The King and I that expresses the thoughts of a woman long recovered from such a tragedy. I don’t know about others in the audience, but I went home and gave my spouse an unexpected and unexplained hug.