Jack Quinn

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Art of the Song: Stephanie Blythe
By: Bruce-Michael Gelbert
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Stephanie Blythe. Photo by J. Henry Fair.

On January 16, at Alice Tully Hall, rising young mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe gave a solo recital of French and English songs, as part of Lincoln Center’s Great Performers “Art of the Song” series, that demonstrated her formidable interpretive skill and versatility. Pianist Warren Jones was the assisting artist.

Opening with a Gabriel Fauré group, Blythe began by lending hardy tone to a furious “Fleur jetée,” which Jones provided with driven accompaniment. The singer gave a gentler touch, in contrast, to the exotic “Les roses d’Ispahan,” reflected sadly on the passage of time in “Automne,” and sang tenderly of love in “En sourdine.” Blythe lavished lush sound on the melancholy song of the sea, “Les berceaux” and, in “Notre amour,” singer and pianist’s music flowed forth with restrained joy. Jones took center stage for a solo piano version of “Après un rêve,” arranged by Percy Grainger in 1939. In a spoken introduction, the pianist placed the transcription of the song in the context of such films of the time as “Wizard of Oz,” “Gone with the Wind” and “Stagecoach” and, indeed, it had more of the expansiveness of Rachmaninoff (or Max Steiner) than the delicate transparency of the work of an Impressionist.

Metropolitan Opera cellist David Heiss joined Blythe and Jones for three songs by Frank Bridge, Benjamin Britten’s teacher, in an arrangement by Jones, which substituted cello for the viola of the original. The selections were the lofty “Far, far from each other,” “Where is it that our soul doth go?” and “Music, when soft voices die,” composed in the late-Romantic German lieder mold, and Blythe sang them earnestly, shaping them as she might have works by Brahms or Wagner.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Songs of Travel,” to Robert Louis Stevenson poetry, followed. Blythe approached the crisp martial, Schubert-inspired “The Vagabond” with determination and continued with a dulcet “Let Beauty Awake,” an ode to Nature. She brought an apt celebratory air to the fanciful “The Roadside Fire,” which imagines touches of home on the open road, and, in “Youth and Love,” captured the awe in the speaker’s look at the world. Blythe recalled, with sadness, a love that had passed in “In Dreams” and reveled in the wonders of the universe in “The Infinite Shining Heavens.” She waxed nostalgic for home, but wanderlust prevailed in “Whither Must I Wander,” which weds Stevenson’s words to a tune taken from a Scottish ballad. Her “Bright Is the Ring of Words,” a paean to song, was sung with nobility. Echoing the cycle’s first song, she ended the wanderer’s tale with a sorrowing, but steadfast “I Have Trod the Upward and the Downward Slope.”

Four extremely whimsical “Songs Parodying Advertisements” (1924), by Nicolas Slonimsky, concluded the formal program. Blythe operatically limned a great tragedy (constipation) and, triumphantly, its solution (Pillsbury Bran Muffins) in “—and then her doctor told her ” forcefully peddled Vauv Magic Facial Powder in “No More!” vacuumed to an ecstatic waltz in “It Sweeps,” praising Sweeper-Vac; and, with Jones, heroically heralded a revolutionary dentifrice (Pepsodent toothpaste) in “Make this a day…,” capping it with an exultant high note.

For a first encore, Blythe lustily wrapped her cultured sound around an earthy “L’Accordéoniste,” written by Michel Emer for Edith Piaf. She sweetly bid her audience farewell with Noel Coward’s genteel “The Party’s Over Now.”

Coming up next month on the “Art of the Song” series are recitals by bass-baritone José van Dam, with pianist Maciej Pikulski, at Tully Hall on February 13 at 2 p.m. (French songs and arias) and 16 at 8 p.m. (Schubert, Schumann and Wolf lieder).

Tickets $48 212/721-6500 or http://www.lincolncenter.org
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