The Christmas season worked its way into Martha Shelley's often impressive recital at the Phillips Collection yesterday afternoon, but not just in its usual fashion. Before turning to the kind of carols that are readily associated with the Yuletide, the young mezzo-soprano offered a brief, but telling song by Debussy that has no jolly melody, no talk of mangers.
"Noel des enfants," which recounts the lament of French children left homeless at Christmas by the First World War, is a piece that can sweep away all the artificial trappings that have coated this holiday for so long. "The enemy has taken everything, even our little bed. Above all, no toys; try to give us again our daily bread." Few songs contain so much pathos, and Shelley communicated it most effectively, without resorting to histrionics.
Such subtlety was not always evident elsewhere in the concert, however, and her tendency toward over-singing interfered with selections that really did not need such dramatic enhancement. Parts of Mahler's "Songs of a Wayfarer" could have used less volume and less sobbing, and an aria from Massenet's "Cendrillon" would have sounded better without so many whooping breaths.
But Shelley's commitment to each text had its advantages, especially when she took greater care with her voice, as in a quartet of Poulenc songs and in the more optimistic carols with which she stylishly closed her program.
Pianist Dan Smith provided variable accompaniment.