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Deborah Voigt
20 Jan 2008

Deborah Voigt in Concert with the San Francisco Symphony

With her performance of the “Four Last Songs,” ably partnered by Michael Tilson Thomas and his San Francisco Symphony, Deborah Voigt emphatically confirmed her place as one of the glories of the current roster of Strauss interpreters.

Above: Deborah Voigt (Columbia Artists Management | 21C Media Group)


We are perhaps familiar with a more usual “Liederabend” approach as furthered by other celebrated sopranos -- you know, the often mewing, cooing, hushed treatment of every fragile syllable as-if-they-might-break-if-sung-too-operatically? Such studied wispiness was little in evidence in Ms. Voigt’s renditions on January 10th. No wilting violet she, Diva Debbie just flat out really sang ‘em all instead of over-“interpreting” them. And oh, how she sang! With steady tone of great presence in all registers and at all gradations of volume; with generous, soaring, high-flying phrases; with delicate nuance and telling detail; all of which was characterized by excellent diction and complete stylistic understanding.

Up against her seasoned Straussian standard then, the SFO was highly competent if not quite equally successful in essaying this richly detailed score. Oft times on past occasions I have wished this fine group of musicians would coalesce into a single-minded band of thrilling music-makers, and often as not I have found them a bit wanting in artistic vision and ensemble, no more so than now as they confronted these lush, complex orchestral songs. If history is a teacher, my past SFO experiences had perhaps taught me that Maestro Thomas (or “MTT” as he is marketed locally) seems to draw inspiration from superb soloists more than he appears to impart it routinely to his players. That was certainly true of such past luminaries as Lang Lang and Helene Grimaud, with whom he became a true collaborator, and with whom the orchestra excelled. Here, MTT inexplicably seemed content to allow the orchestra to be a somewhat aloof accompanist.

That said, there were some very fine orchestral moments to be sure, not least of which was a peerless violin solo in “Beim Schlafengehen,” matched by an equally superb horn solo in “Im Abendrot.” (Indeed, the horns were remarkably wonderful throughout the evening.) Having heard the Vienna Philharmonic take on this score, the bar was set very high for me, since those guys absolutely inhabit this music as a seamless ensemble. That SFO would not be so seamlessly involved was foretold by the concert opener, Knussen’s Third Symphony. It was dispatched with cool skill, but little overt joy or passion, the very talented individual musicians shining if somewhat independent. The Strauss merely continued that semi-detached, sit-back-and-play-the-notes pattern.

And then something happened. Barber’s seldom heard “Andromache’s Farewell” knocked us right between the eyes with a well-judged and committed dramatic reading from our soprano, matched thrill for thrill by expansive, virtuosic orchestral playing elicited by MTT’s fiery conducting. (What, did this guy knock back a couple of Red Bull’s at intermission?)

The wonderful, under-valued soprano Martina Arroyo premiered the piece in 1963 to open the new Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. How enjoyable to already encounter the vibrant palette of orchestral sounds and effects (especially the exciting brass fanfares) that the composer would further refine and put to good use a bit later in his “Antony and Cleopatra” which opened the new Metropolitan Opera House.

“Andromache’s” dynamic score certainly deserves to be heard more often. That is, if a dramatic soprano of Ms. Voigt’s bountiful gifts can be found. It is an interesting and varied scena with well-calculated dramatic tension; featuring a pleasing balance of signature Barber melodiousness and parlando passages; and with some sure-fire, slam-bang, full-Geschrei money notes that stir the soul and tickle the eardrums. And man, does our Diva ever have those money notes! Million Dollar Baby, baby! It was a singular treat to hear such a wholly realized, successful undertaking of this rarity.

After the prolonged ovation died down for the Barber, MTT then jumped right into a Puckish reading of Beethoven’s Fourth with equally pleasing results. Though it may not have the grandeur or gravitas of the “bookend” Third and Fifth Symphonies, it was delightful nonetheless, especially in this playful, inspired interpretation. My persistence in returning to Davies Hall for yet another concert after those several disappointing near-misses was amply rewarded this night, for now SFO was indeed not just “playing” but truly “inhabiting” the music with abandon.

MTT was in his element, inspiring and charismatic, enjoying himself (and Beethoven) so much that at a couple of points I was thinking he may just break into some spontaneous Schuhplatten. The orchestra responded in kind with flawless ensemble playing and sparkling, intricate solo work. (As Ed Sullivan might say: “How about a hand for that bassoon player? C’mon!”) The last stinging chord brought a rain of rousing cheers down on the assemblage, probably not a usual response for the Fourth, which says a lot for the dazzling magic that MTT and the SFO imbued on a piece of such gentler gifts.

After this exciting second half, representing the very best I have ever heard from this bunch and rivaling any other orchestra in the world, I wanted to shout “Dude, drink the Red Bull before Act One next time!” And for all I know, MTT did. . .

James Sohre

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