Among the varied treats on offer in the 30th season of Alan Iglitzin’s Olympic Music Festival, the program that opened this year’s ten-week chamber-music feast on Saturday seemed in prospect one of the most enticing.
Nor did the reality, when I heard Sunday’s second performance, disappoint. Pianist Paul Hersh with composer Robert Schumann surely constitutes a pairing of predestined aptness. Why, you may wonder? Quite aside from being one of the world’s great pianists, Hersh possesses exactly the qualities requisite for playing this most teasingly indirect and allusive of composers: a light and subtle touch, together with an equally subtle poetic imagination. Put those attributes at the service of Schumann’s “Dichterliebe,” one of the half-dozen greatest song-cycles ever written, and add, in 32-year-old American baritone Zachary Gordin, a singer already capable of arresting musical insights, and you have the materials for the superb performance a fortunate audience enjoyed on a gorgeous summer day.
Gordin has been busier on the operatic than on the recital stage, so his skill in scaling his voice appropriately to the intimate environment of Quilcene’s rustic barn was all the more praiseworthy. The occasional big effects were commanding and intense without ever descending into coarseness, and the delicacy and tonal allure he brought to the cycle’s preponderance of quiet songs were deeply impressive.
His German diction, too, was exemplary — just as, before intermission, his performance of an attractive set of songs by the Venezuelan-born and French-naturalized Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947) had shown that the French language too sits convincingly in his voice. It was a pleasure to make the acquaintance of these seven “Chansons grises” (“Gray Songs”). They were apparently composed when Hahn was in his early teens, and their perceptive treatment of complex and emotionally searching Verlaine texts would have been impressive coming from a composer of twice that age.
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In addition to providing a wonderfully insightful introduction to the Schumann cycle — about which, well as I know this music, he told me things I had never previously thought of — Hersh supported his singer with unfailingly vivid expression, punctual timing, and a fine sense of balance. His playing is especially notable for its pearly limpidity of tone, and for his ability to project independent lines with total clarity and with a sense of compelling forward motion. These virtues also informed the performance of three “Liebesträume” for solo piano by Liszt that opened the program.
Hersh will be back on July 20 and 21 for a program of romantic works by Rozsa, Mendelssohn, and — again — Schumann, and for the following weekend’s Beethoven festival (the “Spring” Sonata, the “Ghost” Trio, and the third “Rasumovsky” String Quartet). At the keyboard on the other weeks will be Julio Elizalde, the gifted young student of Hersh’s, who has played at several previous Olympic festivals. He has now stepped into the role of co-artistic director alongside the redoubtable Iglitzin, who could hardly have guessed, when he started this remarkable artistic endeavor in 1984, that it would still be going strong 30 years later.
Bernard Jacobson: firstname.lastname@example.org