Those fortunate enough to have been at the Phillips Collection Sunday afternoon heard what I suspect may be the outstanding song recital of the season. The perpetrators were the German baritone Holger Falk, in his Washington debut, and British pianist Julius Drake. Their artfully conceived German and French program, Schubert and Hanns Eisler on the first half, Francis Poulenc and Erik Satie on the second, combined subtlety and power in a breathtaking display of ensemble virtuosity in captivating music.
Falk has an extraordinarily flexible baritone, with a warm, confiding lower and midrange that, when called for, can go full throttle in a nanosecond. Meanwhile, in his upper range, he can float a pianissimo that could melt the heart of the Snow Queen. His French is exquisite, and his German is that of a cultured native speaker. But more important than his beautiful voice and perfect diction, Falk is able to characterize every word so vividly that, if he were singing in Vedic Sanskrit, you’d get the message. Drake needs no introduction to Washington audiences, other than to say that he is one of today’s foremost collaborative pianists, and any singer would be lucky to have him for a partner.
Falk brings a light touch to Schubert, so that when things grow serious, the impact grips the heart. Five deeply expressive songs culminated in the last Schubert wrote, “Die Taubenpost,” a song about a carrier pigeon, “the messenger of a devoted heart,” sung with delicate but ineluctable pathos. Pungently bitter selections from Hanns Eisler’s “Hollywood Songbook” and “Hollywood Elegies,” with words by Brecht, provided an astringent change of pace. An archly comical group of Satie songs flanked by two scintillating cycles of Poulenc to texts by Apollinaire concluded this afternoon of unforgettable music making.