COC Vocal Series: Chansons Songs by Santoliquido, Fauré, Duparc, Strauss, and Copland. Simone Osborne, sop.; Andrew Haji, ten.; Liz Upchurch, piano. Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, Four Seasons Centre. Noon, October 19, 2017.
You know that saying, “the best laid plans of mice and men”? Well, it often goes awry.
In a recent interview, with soprano Simone Osborne and Gordon Bintner, they told me they were looking forward to their first joint recital. Sadly, it was not to be. Bintner didn’t feel well and cancelled. Such is the hazard when your art is completely at the mercy of two tiny ligamentous tissues in your throat. Unlike instrumentalists, singers rely on their bodies, and if your body is under the weather, that’s it, game over!
He was replaced by his good friend, Canadian tenor Andrew Haji, with less than 24-hour notice. They sang together last summer in Lucretia Borgia at the Salzburg Festival, and they are currently singing Belcore and Nemorino respectively in the COC Elixir. This necessitated a change of program. Originally, Bintner was to sing Finzi songs, Op. 18. In the revised program, the Finzi, Mendelssohn duets, and Saint-Saens disappeared, replaced by Santoliquido, Duparc and Copland. Osborne sang the Strauss songs as planned. Since the pianist was COC Ensemble Head Liz Upchurch, she has worked with these singers over the years and knew their repertoires like the back of her hand. She accompanied Haji in his Carnegie recital last season, if memory serves. Upchurch was the “rock” throughout today’s concert, not an easy task given the sudden program changes.
The concert opened with Andrew Haji singing I canti della sera by Italian composer Francesco Santoliquido (1883-1971). These songs sounded familiar as I was sitting there listening, and then I realized I heard Joyce DiDonato sing these in a recital a few years ago in Germany. The four songs were composed in 1908, representing the last gasps of the Late Romantic Style. Wonderfully sensual and “perfumy” — okay, schmaltzy if you must, reminiscent of Zandonai’s pieces. You will have to have a heart of stone to hate these songs, even though it was considered regressive at the time. Haji’s lyric tenor has the requisite warmth, purity, and beauty of tone, particularly his exquisite mezza voce., He also has the clarion fortissimo when called for, to do these songs justice. A great start to the recital.
Osborne took over with three chestnuts by Gabriel Fauré. Her voice is a light lyric with a sweet, and quite distinctively girlish timbre. With compact-sized voice, the RBA is an ideal-sized venue for her. She sang with fine control, if just a little short on a full spectrum of tone colours. I particularly liked the simplicity and sincerity of her approach, with no excessive drama, no artifice, and indeed no artificiality. The “Apres un reve” was lovely. Haji followed with another French group, this time by Duparc. “Chanson triste” and “Phidylé” are two extremely popular pieces one often finds on recital programs. Haji lightened his voice for these, sang as much of it as possible in a caressing half-voice, with beautifully focused tone.
What’s a song recital without some German Lieder? Osborne gave us three Richard Strauss gems — “Allerseelen”, “Die Nacht”, and “Zueignung”. She spoke briefly to the audience, explaining that her husband, Gordon, was heartbroken having to miss this concert, especially with his family flown in from BC to hear him. Osborne also introduced and paid tribute to the great Canadian mezzo Judith Forst, who was in the audience. In a lovely gesture, Osborne dedicated the third Strauss song, “Zueignung,” one of the greatest Strauss creations, to Forst. I confess I’m used to — and prefer — hearing these Strauss pieces sung by bigger voices, but Osborne, with her well-focused tone and heartfelt delivery, won me over.
The formal part of the recital ended with three beloved Aaron Copland songs sung by the soprano. I am not surprised she chose these, favourites of her mentor, American mezzo Marilyn Horne. I think Osborne sang these just two years ago at the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto recital. “Long Time Ago,” Simple Gifts,” and “Shall We Gather at the River” are three simple, folk-inspired pieces evocative of a bygone America. Osborne sang them vividly, with warm, engaging tone. I particularly loved the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts,” a piece that never fails to move me, and great to hear at Thanksgiving time.
Surprise! Two encores, with Haji offering a resplendently-voiced “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz,” which is becoming a calling-card for him. This tenor just keeps getting better and better. Osborne had the last song, and she chose to sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and she sang it very beautifully, with great expression and textual nuance. There you have it, a very satisfying concert featuring two of the best young Canadian singers. If you were there, I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.
If you missed it, you can catch them in the remaining five performances of the COC’s The Elixir of Love on Oct. 21, 27, 29, Nov. 2 and 4. www.coc.ca