Ladies Morning Musical Club, Mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn and pianist Julius Drake at Pollack Hall, April 12, 2015.
MONTREAL – Sunday afternoon began with the usual apologies to the barman who woke me up. Then I made my way to a club sportif in Outremont where juice boxes were served to a roomful of toddlers. This was a fundraiser for Bach Before Bedtime, an organization that introduces kids to classical instruments and the people who play them. I watched a little boy carry his baby brother closer to the stage. It’s an easy thing to like even when the room smells faintly of swimming pool.
The pink-cheeked wave smashed against the rocks of my main destination, McGill’s Pollack Hall, which recently turned 40 and where a man slowly walked down the aisle wearing a fleece emblazoned with “MANNERS OF DYING”.
As far as I know he survived what followed, a recital by Christianne Stotijn, who began with songs by Tchaikovsky that she has recorded with the pianist, Julius Drake, and for which they seem to have a special talent. Her Russian is excellent and her voice roams widely; it can narrow to a sorrowful point and as suddenly bloom in throaty contralto range. In high range it is exceptionally clear and calm, and though there were hints of fatigue by the end of the afternoon, she never lost her warmth.
I haven’t heard Tchaivkosky songs in a long time. They remind me of hot summers on the estate sipping fermented bread below the swaying birches. The fields rippled in the wind and the peasants sang pretty songs to the beat of the whip. They seemed so happy then. And yet we had to flee.
Stotijn sang them almost casually, with weight but not too much emphasis. Like something you’d hear out a window. It’s the only way to sing this hysterical man. Some of them, like “My Genius, My Angel, My Friend”, were written while he was still a teenager. “If I had known” is my favourite, it’s light fingered piano introduction and exit bizarrely sandwich a tragic, folksy song.
At her best, Stotijn adds interior movements to her phrasing, like a dance inside a single syllable, and it’s wonderfully suited to these lines. And the Shostakovich that followed, six mysterious, beautiful and angry settings of Tsvetaeva poems. These are an incredible cocktail, written at the beginning of the 20th century by a woman who would be driven to suicide by poverty and oppression, and set to music sixty years later by a composer who was both a party member and a target himself. The settings give the poems a darkly prophetic quality. Tsvetaeva died in 1941 and you could say Shostakovich completed them.
Stotijn’s intimate introduction was a good example for talkative musicians in the audience: speak only if you have real enthusiasm for the subject, otherwise it’s awkward for everybody. Then she sang, and all six were captivating, but “Anna Akhmatova” was the best in its balance of respect and envious indignation.
The second half had four Korngold settings of Shakespeare, more than enough of him for the rest of the year. He certainly found an appropriate haven in 1930s Hollywood. The contrived and sentimental songs brought out unflattering exaggeration in both singer and accompanist, but a handful of Strauss leider set things right: Heine’s “Schlechtes Wetter” managed tender playfulness without being cloying and von Gilm’s “Zueignung” ended on a nicely ambiguous note, earnest and sardonic. I left looking forward to my shelf of poems and a warm evening.
The Women’s Musical Club of Toronto will present Mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn and pianist Julius Drake at Walter Hall, on Thursday, April 16. Details here.