It was in 19th century Germany that the genre of the classical art song – lieder – reached its maturity. Under Franz Schubert, the genre was invested with the kind of variety and loftiness of expression previously thought to be the domain of symphonic music, oratorio and opera. The German contribution to the genre reached its zenith at the turn of the 20th century with the miniature psycho-dramas of Hugo Wolf and Gustav Mahler. Art song later sank its roots abroad bearing fruit in the work of composers of disparate styles and nationalities such as Benjamin Britten (England), Dmitri Shostakovich (Russia) and Ned Rorem (USA).
Sweden’s contribution to the art song is one that remains largely unexplored by a wider audience. A chance to hear some of this legacy was provided by soprano Kathleen Roland and pianist Lisa Sylvester at a recital held at Pasadena’s Boston Court last Friday night.
The songs selected emphasized the pastoral side of the nation’s melos, while echoing some of the pantheism of its Viking past. While none of the songs on the program are comparable in stature and quality to some of the best that the genre has produced (the inclusion of the work of Dag Wirén, Gösta Nystroem, and especially Allan Pettersson would have been very welcome), it nevertheless was a program that provided much for the listener to delight in.
In style and substance, the spirit of the 19th century salon loomed large over the program. Only in the pair of charming songs at the recital’s opening by Bo Linde, with their occasional bluesy chords, and the Expressionistic ballad “Maria” by Daniel Börtz, did the sound of the contemporary world intrude.
For the most part, the music revealed their composers were writing not for a wide audience, but rather the intimate scale of the family parlor. In all the songs there was a casual, easy-going air that was not dispelled even when the songs took a turn towards drama. These were songs meant to be sung around the home piano, perhaps during a long, midsummer night.
Among the gems were “Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings mölte” (“The Girl Came From Meeting Her Lover”) by Wilhelm Stenhammar, the songs of Bo Linde, and a clutch of songs by Türe Rangström. Less successful was the aforementioned Börtz work with its contrived lyrics and symbolism, not to mention the blustering bombast of the music itself. Roland was joined by a string quartet comprised of Jacqueline Suzuki, Adrianna Zoppo (1st and 2nd violins), Lynn Grants (viola), and Margaret Edmondson (cello) who wrested as fine a performance from the score as can be hoped for.
Roland’s vocalism was fluid and warm, ideal for the music on the program. Her instrument conveyed the music’s simple joy and expression vividly and without pretense. Where the music pressed her voice to go further she was able to do so to fine effect, never sounding strident. Her accompanist Sylvester was her equal in every way, giving Roland plenty of room to maneuver while managing her moments in the spotlight with aplomb.