Works by Brahms, Mahler, Mendelssohn, Abraham, Bartok, Ellstein, Olshanetsky, Gershwin, Ives, and Bernstein. Helene Schneiderman, mezzo; Christopher Bagan, piano. Richard Bradshaw Amphitheare, Four Seasons Centre, Oct. 23, 2018.
One of the highlights of the COC Vocal Series in the still-young opera season happened yesterday, in the form of a recital given by American mezzo-soprano Helene Schneiderman. It was a very generous program of German Lieder, Yiddish songs and American standards, all delivered with assured vocalism and a surfeit of theatricality by the veteran mezzo. As well, the packed audience was treated to solo piano pieces by Bartok and Gershwin, wonderfully played by Christopher Bagan.
Kammersängerin Schneiderman made her COC debut two seasons ago as Marcellina in Le nozze di Figaro, and she’s back as Madame Larina in Eugene Onegin. After more than three decades of singing leading roles the likes of Carmen and Rosina, Schneiderman, now in late career, has transitioned to character roles. Having heard her the past two seasons as the Old Countess (Vanessa), Old Lady (Candide), and Annina (Der Rosenkavalier), I find that her voice has remained fresh, and she imbues all her roles with dramatic insight that only comes with age, understanding and experience.
Up to now, I’ve only heard her as comprimaria, where her stage time is typically limited. It’s great to finally hear her in a more substantial and varied program in this recital, beginning with the chestnuts of the German Lieder repertoire, such as the very familiar “Vergebliches Ständchen” by Brahms and “Das irdische Leben,” a song from Mahler’s well-known Das Knaben Wunderhorn.
These Lieder showcased her perfect German and exemplary attention to textual nuances. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that her whole career was spent in Germany, first as a young artist in Oper Heidelberg’s Ensemble, and then the last 34 years as a Fest artist at the Staatstheater Stuttgart. The German selections concluded with a most affecting “Toujours l’amour,” from Ball im Savoy, by Jewish composer Paul Abraham, with its delightful lilting melody.
This was followed by “Yome, yome, Shpil Mir a Lidele,” a Yiddish folk song about a mother trying to cheer up her teenage daughter, first by suggesting that they go to a tailor to give the girl a new dress. But that’s not what the girl wants. Maybe to a cobbler for new shoes? Nope, not that either. Finally, the mother realizes it’s a groom that the girl wants — for that they need to go to the matchmaker! Schneiderman fully brought out the inherent folksy humour in this short, two-minute piece, with spot-on facial expressions, hand gestures and body language — I didn’t even need to consult the text.
Three more Yiddish songs — “Maz’l”, “Glik” and “Oy Mame bin ikh varlibt!” all beautifully and idiomatically sung. These are songs in the Klezmer tradition, invariably in the minor key, tinged with melancholy, with evocative melodies, once heard hardly forgotten. The mezzo lavished these songs with love and humour, with a surfeit of theatricality and a delivery that truly lives up to the title of her recital — “Songs from The Heart.”
I would be remiss if I don’t mention the marvelous playing of solo piano pieces by Christopher Bagan, who’s on the staff of the COC. First he played Bartok’s Romanian Dance No. 1, a percussive and angular piece which the pianist managed to bring out its inherent lyricism. This was followed by three Preludes by Gershwin, with spitfire energy alternating with languid, jazzy rhythms, a lovely change of pace.
The final group was American songs, Gershwin’s immortal “The Man I love” paired with Charles Ives’ “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” an off-the-beaten-track piece, much less well known than Dvorak’s by the same name, all dispatched with aplomb. She then paid tribute to Leonard Bernstein, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, by ending the recital with “I Am Easily Assimilated” from Candide. I had the pleasure of hearing Schneiderman sing this last summer at the Santa Fe Opera, and she reprised it beautifully here.
All in all, a wonderful way to spend one’s lunch hour.