“I have the Elisabeth Schwarzkopf recording, and she doesn’t sound anything like that,” one concertgoer was overheard to complain at intermission of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concert Saturday night at Strathmore in North Bethesda.
In context, “she” was the young American soprano Heidi Melton, and the recording was Schwarzkopf’s radiant 1965 performance, forever immortalized, of Richard Strauss’s “Four Last Songs,” which also formed the centerpiece of the BSO’s all-German program led by conductor Markus Stenz.
It was an unjust comparison, particularly because Melton’s concerts with the BSO last week were her first attempts at Strauss’ valedictory from 1948. Yet it was also an inevitable one, given the exalted position Strauss’s songs have come to occupy in the soprano repertory. If Melton, 33, didn’t banish the memories of yesteryear, she did reveal herself as a promising singer who has the vocal beauty, if not yet the interpretive insight, for these most poignant and profound of songs.
The first song in the cycle, “Frühling” (“Spring”), most clearly betrayed Melton’s artistry as a work in progress. She overwhelmed the delicate vocal line and struggled with the song’s high tessitura, revealing an unwieldy upper register with errant intonation. The gentle poetry of Strauss’s invocation of spring was reduced to ungainly prose.
Yet Melton soon found herself on firmer footing with the second song, “September.” With the singing focused in her middle register, Melton’s strengths came into view: a beautifully rich tone, dynamic sensitivity and the breadth of phrasing to trace Strauss’s expansive, elegiac lines.
But certain qualities remained elusive, particularly the ability to shade the text and capture its poetic nuances, which hopefully will come in time. The final song, “Im Abendrot” (“At Sunset”), with its aching lines and twilight poetry, was undoubtedly beautiful, with Melton offering a vivid tonal palette and lovely pianissimos. Yet it was a generalized beauty that only rode the surface of the music.
Throughout, Stenz provided sensitive support and drew wistful, loving contributions from the orchestra: luminous strings, autumnal horns and affectionate playing from concertmaster Jonathan Carney in the crucial violin solo.
The concert opened with a rendition of Carl Maria von Weber’s overture to “Der Freischütz” that could have been called a tale of two orchestras. The strings offered a taut, dramatic and darkly lyrical performance, yet the winds and brass were disappointingly wan.
The same dichotomy was evident in the vigorous performance of Schumann’s Second Symphony that closed the program. Stenz centered his fleet, energetic reading on the crisp articulation, confident expression and darting rhythms of the strings, yet the wind and brass lines were prosaic by comparison, lacking shape and shading. Stenz utilized minimal rubato, favoring propulsive urgency over lyrical indulgence. The results were certainly invigorating, but a touch of romanticism would have gone a long way.
Chin is a freelance writer.