Soprano Carmen Balthrop devised an imaginative song program for her National Gallery recital on Sunday. Casting a wide international net, she found Christmas-themed works by Debussy, Ravel, Wolf, Rodrigo, Ives and Corigliano, as well as by the less frequently encountered Joaquin Nin, Alec Rowley, Henri Busser and Norman Dello Joio.
With all the unknown quantities on the program--even the well-known composers were represented by obscure pieces--it was a particular shame that no texts, translations or spoken introductions were given, and that the West Garden Court's bathhouse acoustics blurred the singer's words. But Balthrop was skillful enough with her inflections and her ability to differentiate style to make something unique of each song.
Time may have loosened her vibrato and tightened her top register a bit, but Balthrop can still pour out a darkly beautiful sound and float some lovely high notes. She made the Busser song expansively operatic, the Debussy quietly urgent, the Corigliano arresting in its trumpeted depictions of the Christ child. Her Spanish songs showed idiomatic verve, but it was her Wolf, perhaps, that impressed most through creamy tone and vivid storytelling. A spiritual, performed a cappella as an encore, was ravishing.
Jose Caceres was a nimble and sensitive pianist. He also proved a fine guitarist in another, calypso encore, with Balthrop's daughter joining the fun on percussion.