Fort Worth — Baritone Nathan Gunn and his collaborative pianist and wife, Julie Gunn, showed themselves to be capable in a variety of genres, from Schumann’s lush romanticism to contemporary art songs to musical theater. Nathan Gunn appeared in recital with The Cliburn concerts a handful of years ago as a last-minute replacement for the ailing Deborah Voigt. On that occasion, he evidenced a voice and a personality big enough for Bass Hall. On Thursday, in the more intimate confines of Fort Worth’s Renzo Piano Pavilion at the Kimbell Art Museum, he perhaps toned down his personality a bit, but not his voice.
First on the program was Robert Schumann’s song cycle Liederkreis, Op. 39. The Gunns’ Schumann is not especially subtle. Nathan Gunn’s voice, like his stage presence, better serves the warm and chummy than the purely beautiful, and thus he sometimes has trouble capturing the mood of the darker songs in Schumann’s cycle.
Julie Gunn, though, is an exemplary collaborative pianist seemingly equally at ease in all the genres the duo performed in Thursday’s recital. The pair’s onstage banter was both charming and informative, especially when discussing the two less-well-known composers on the first, more “serious” half of the program. These are the American Ben Moore, who will himself be at the Modern Museum of Art in Fort Worth on February 13, in a performance and discussion of his works, and the English Roger Quilter, who was most active in the 1910s and 1920s. Julie Gunn remarked that to them, these composers are musical descendants of Schumann. Indeed, neither reflects the tonalities we’ve come to think of as “new” music.
The Quilter songs the duo performed were settings of two Robert Louis Stevenson poems, “In the Highlands” and “Over the Land Is April.” Quilter’s songs are melodic and relentlessly tonal; this is a familiar, friendly musical language. The Gunns are well-suited to performing these songs. They capture the simplicity both of the settings and of Stevenson’s poignant yet generally naïve words to good effect.
Ben Moore’s language is somewhat more sophisticated than Quilter’s, but still a good match for the versatile Gunns. They performed two Moore settings of William Butler Yeats poems and one of a poem of John Keats’.
The Yeats poems were “Lake Isle of Innisfree,” perhaps the modernist Yeats’ most romantic poem, with its yearning toward a Thoreauvian desire to build a cabin by a lake and live in solitude, “And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow.” Initially, Moore’s setting seemed to lack the poignancy needed for this poem of yearning, but then a modulation brought us in to more melancholy territory.
Similarly, Yeats’ “When You Are Old,” a 12-line reworking of an earlier French sonnet, is an early poem and an homage to Yeats’ beloved Maud Gonne, who repeatedly rejected his offers of marriage (and eventually married someone else, as did, eventually, Yeats). The poem asks Gonne to think of a future time when she has rejected Yeats and is “old and gray and full of sleep” and “murmur[s], a little sadly, how love fled.” In the middle stanza, though, Yeats observes that “one man loved the pilgrim soul in you.” This is the climactic moment in the poem, but it is still a quiet moment. Alas, Moore’s setting does not quite capture that mood, instead opting for a swelling piano interlude between Yeats’ declarations of love and his determination that Gonne will regret it if she rejects him. (Her marriage turned out to be an unhappy one that ended in divorce, so perhaps, indeed, he was right.)
The Gunns truly shine, though, not in these romantic and neo-romantic settings, but in the musical theater and cabaret that is their hallmark. The second half launched with Irving Berlin’s “I Love a Piano,” quite apropos for a concert hosted by the Cliburn, and continued with more Berlin, some Kurt Weill, a medley of cowboy songs, and “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” as well as an encore of the 18th-century Scottish ballad “The Parting Glass.”
While some of this material overlapped Gunn’s previous Cliburn appearance, his renditions of “Don’t Fence Me In” and “Home on the Range” are by far the most beautiful I have ever heard. An operatic baritone singing these familiar songs gives them new life and allows us to hear their simple beauty with new ears.