Masterpieces from yesteryear can prompt such newfound skepticism that once-standard classical works sometimes abruptly fall out of fashion.
Star mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and pianist Bradley Moore aren’t about to let Schumann’s 1830 song cycle Frauenliebe und Leben (A Woman’s Love and Life) slip beyond the horizon.
Their Tuesday recital presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society (streaming through Friday at pcmsconcerts.org) disassembled the eight-song cycle, which has been sung by nearly every great female lieder singer — but didn’t deconstruct it.
The male-authored words of husband-worship, by Adelbert von Chamisso, are straight out of the 19th-century patriarchy, but here each song was individually presented in a cluster of other music from later decades in the interest of showing how Schumann’s portrayal of fundamental emotions echoes into the future. Composers included Fauré, Debussy, Rorem, and Dankworth.
The program was a complete musical and conceptual success, showing how a vocal event doesn’t have to be completely reinvented (as Opera Philadelphia has been doing with its online videos) to create a fresh, revelatory experience.
As seamlessly as the concert unfolded, it reflected a great deal of industry, encompassing five languages, all sung with conviction and authority — plus a range of musical expression that sometimes contained emotion in small, tidy packages but also arrived in less-filtered outbursts.
The only problem was that after the emotional extravagance of Grieg’s “Jeg elsker dig”, the urbanity of Rorem’s “O you whom I often and silently come,” and the sardonic comedy of Mahler’s “Rheinlegendchen,” Frauenliebe could seem awfully reigned in. Even Schumann songs from 10 years later — one of them addressing the bride’s aggrieved mother — are less concerned with surface lyricism but reflect greater wisdom.
This isn’t to say the Frauenliebe lost charm; the appeal shifted somewhat from the poetic content to how the composer meticulously fashioned such distinct, miniature worlds in each song. To that, Graham added the seldom-heard insight that the cycle’s female protagonist was a working-class woman whose marriage landed her in the upper classes.
After 25 years of being a major operatic presence, Graham’s vibrato felt excessive until halfway through the concert when her voice refocused itself into all that it has ever been — with her trademark warmth and depth of tone. Grieg’s “Jeg elsker dig” showed what intimacy she can achieve with well-controlled soft singing.
Pianist Moore was particularly distinguished in the watery effects of Mahler’s aquatic saga, and the PCMS camerawork caught how the two breathe together while molding the expressive contours of the music. English subtitles for each of the songs were greatly appreciated.
Graham’s encore was meant to show life beyond widowhood: “Hello, Young Lovers” from The King and I, dedicated to departed loved ones. Boy, did that take on new meaning with all of the loss this pandemic year.
The Susan Graham recital with Bradley Moore is available to stream on demand through Friday, free with donation requested. Information: pcmsconcerts.org.