Sunday November 23, 2008 - At Carnegie Hall's Weill Auditorium, with James Levine and Daniel Barenboim at the keyboards, four of today's most prominent young voices were heard in a performance of the Brahms LIEBESLIEDER WALTZES (both books) which had long been sold out.
The evening opened with Levine and Barenboim playing Schubert's "Grand Duo" Opus 140. I must say that there seemed to be a number of wrong notes being struck which dampened my enthusiasm. After a while I found my attention wandering and wishing for the piece to end.
After the intermission, things took a radical turn for the better. Balanchine fans know LIEBESLIEDER because of the Master's masterpiece. I've also seen a Mark Morris setting of Book II at Jacob's Pillow several years ago. Today was actually the first time I've heard the cycles performed in a pure concert setting.
Rather than having the pianists share a keyboard, two pianos were used. When the singing started everything seemed too loud and overpowering but matters were quickly set right. The celebrated pianists were at their best, perhaps inspired by the excellence of the vocal quartet.
This was a youthful LIEBESLIEDER with the four singers reveling in the beauty and individuality of their timbres and blending ideally in duets. Lisette Oropesa's sweet, ultra-feminine tone was brimming with romantic ardour throughout the long cycles; her duets with Sasha Cooke created a spine-tingling harmonic resonance and thoughts of the Rose Presentation scene and final duet from ROSENKAVALIER kept creeping into my head. Sasha's vivid rendering of her solo was a high-point in terms of dramatic urgency but even more notable was her ability to keep the mezzo line always nicely forward in ensembles. It is the mezzo's subtly modulated harmonies that make for much of the magic in the songs; Sasha's warm, burnished colouring in her lower range gave everything a lovely glow. Both girls wore black gowns, Lisette in 40s-glamour style while Sasha's more tailored, contemporary look set off her striking complexion, eyes and hair to perfection.
Matthew Plenk's clear, poignant sound captures all the romance of the music; it's a highly individual and really appealing voice, youthful and dynamically pliant. His solo passages and duets with Shenyang brought tears to my eyes, as did the earlier blending of Lisette and Sasha. Shenyang followed up his recent Juilliard success with another perfect performance here; he has a tremendous gift for communicating and he has the instrument to do it with. Effortless vocalism, rising into the baritone range to harmonize with Matthew and then giving the lower notes that extra plush-velvet touch to polish things off.
Among the audience: Susan Graham, Rene Pape and Seiji Ozawa. With ticket prices close to $100 each, the presence of Levine and Barenboim guaranteed a sell-out. But in the end it was the four singers who made the performance so special.
The quartet of singers after the performance: Shenyang, Sasha, Lisette & Matthew. Bravi tutti!!