Monday, November 24, 2008

The voice

Weeks ago, amid feasting repeatedly on the stage radiance of Anja Harteros, I got to experience a show featuring a very different star: contralto Ewa Podles. She made two appearances with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, though not actually at Lincoln Center -- construction has moved their concerts off-campus to the Society for Ethical Culture's CPW auditorium.

Podles, of course, is not much to look at, either on purely visual criteria (she's unapologetically short, stout, and frumpy) or for drama (she just stands there). This, it's said, is what kept her from the Met between her long-ago debut and her appearances this fall in Gioconda. And there's something to this criticism, except that when she opens her mouth it's quite beside the point. Her sound can more or less be described (better by others than by me), but whatever else one might say of it, it's so obviously and primarily significant that by it alone she deserves presence on whatever stage she might grace. Even now, as the registers sound more and more dissimilar and other signs of age creep in, it's difficult to register much besides surprised pleasure as the stunning sound washes over you for minutes at a time. (Mind you, sound doesn't always carry the day: her attempt at "Der Abschied" a decade or so back was an unintelligible disaster.)

She was actually taking part in an odd mixed CMS program, with uninspiring solo cello and harpsichord bits before Podles and a string quartet closed the first half with Respighi's "Il tramonto". If there's more to this piece than warmed-over early Schoenberg, it didn't show here -- though, as mentioned above, there was much in the performance to arrest the ear. The second half was more complete success: Janacek's "Pohadka" was well played by David Finkel and (especially) Wu Han; Bolcom's "Dream Music #2" (for Harpsichord and Percussion), maybe the most interesting piece of the night, was evocative and authentically dreamy, recognizably of the 1960s without being particularly dated; and finally Podles again sang in Peter Jaffe's string-quintet-and-harpsichord arrangement of Haydn's well-known "Arianna a Naxos".

Here again Podles made no use of the bodily or even fine textual means by which other singers make their point, but in this straightforward scene of sweet desire and bitter abandonment they turned out, at least for her, to be unnecessary. All vital drama and feeling were packed into the overpowering, all-encompassing span of her elemental sound, climaxing in a final "barbaro!" that still rings in my ears today.

I've heard that this may have been her last New York concert appearance. I'm not sure it will, but if so, the event was at least captured for recorded release.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.