Last Sunday, just short of a week past Valentine's Day, soprano Natalie Mann dared to program an entire evening of songs devoted to love at the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall in New York. Perhaps for this reason, to their loss, recently romance-saturated New Yorkers decided to miss Songs of Love and Hope, featuring the talented Ms. Mann and her incredibly skilled pianist Jeffrey Panko. Nevertheless, a modestly-sized but grateful audience fully enjoyed the ability and intensity both musicians had to offer for the benefit of all present, along with the American Heart Association to whom she dedicated her concert this American Heart Month.
While a few of the audience members hearts might have fluttered when the stunning soprano entered in a silvery corseted gown with flowing black skirt and shawl, Natalie Mann confidently began her performance without such hesitation. Intoning her first of two sets by living female composers, Though Love Be a Day by Gwyneth Walker, Ms. Mann sets a high bar of musicality and beautifully moving phrases. E. E. Cummings set four of the five texts, with the text of the final movement, "Still," written by the composer herself "to provide an intense and powerful closing to the cycle (quote taken from the author's website)."
Both the program notes and Gwyneth Walker make a special note of the fact that the verses within Cumming's After All White Horses Are in Bed first inspired her creation of the entire set to frame it as a centerpiece. Natalie Mann's stylized use of vibrato, alternating with a captivating straight tone on repeated themes serves to make the entire set clear and meaningful, and Mann and Panko appropriately use a more playful, almost mischievous character for the second and fourth texts. Seemingly as meaningful to the soprano as the composer both the third, After All White Horses, text and the final commentary by Walker compel the audience with not a moment of disconnection from the singer or pianist. Natalie Mann's high notes soar with no tension, and her full and balanced tone from top to bottom dances with Jeffrey Panko, whose sensitive clarity creates a musical organism between them throughout the concert.
After an incredible start to her diverse musical offering, Natalie Mann performs a French set with the Fiançailles pour Rire by Francis Poulenc and "Depuis le jour" from Louise by Gustave Charpentier. Poulenc wrote his composition as an excuse to dwell upon the thoughts of his dear friend and poet Louise de Vilmorin during World War II when she, trapped with her husband behind enemy lines, could not communicate with her friend Francis Poulenc (Brilliantly ironic to pair these with a piece from Louise). Not one of the Poulenc texts has a thoroughly positive outlook; I would have preferred to see a more convincing range of emotion from Natalie Mann within these pieces, along with a greater sense of abandon throughout Charpentier's "Depuis le jour." On the other hand, Ms. Mann does an excellent job of continuing her brilliantly sustained legato, undeniably stunning high notes, and impressive quality of pitch and tone center across the board. Unfortunately, her uneven mastery of the stresses and sounds of the French language makes both the Poulenc and Charpentier a poor match for her otherwise superb talents.
Returning to the stage after an intermission, Natalie Mann launches into a far more flattering set of three Richard Strauss songs that suit her as perfectly as the plunging red gown she wears, making no secret of her full and uninhibited breathing technique. She has a warm and rich tone less common in lyric sopranos, and both Strauss's writing and the German language embrace and support her technique gloriously. In general despite her excellent German, Ms. Mann seems most comfortable in English, and the following return to her native language with a set by living composer Lori Laitman (joyfully present in the audience) sets her at ease immediately.
Between the vocalist and pianist, their delivery of The Metropolitan Tower and Other Songs by Laitman feels intricately connected and intensely beloved. In this set, both become the poetry by Sara Teasdale, Jeffrey Panko giving motion to the fabulously lilting winds of "A Winter Night" and Natalie Mann providing a form for "The Strong House" in her tall, powerful stance. The final movement, "To a Loose Woman," gives them a chance to showcase their humor with a bit of a cheeky tango in the accompaniment, and the composer rises to accept unrestrained applause for a truly great song cycle.
Finally, before a Russian set to conclude the evening, Jeffrey Panko performs his second solo piano piece, "La Cathédrale engloutie" from Claude Debussy's Préludes. Earlier, after the Poulenc set, he played an expertly technical Jeux d'eau by Maurice Ravel with a rubato one might have imagined precisely timed by Quartz. With the "Cathédrale," which Panko lovingly introduces as the incarnation of the Breton myth of a cathedral which rises and falls in the sea, he clearly has found a more personal and dear piece to showcase his sensitivity even further. His excellent use of pedal keeps the cathedral bells ringing and connected while he clearly chimes each chord percussively before sinking into and lingering upon successive bass notes to bring the audience under water with the cathedral itself. As Panko so carefully delivers his final note, he releases it as if never to let go of the music he portrays so well and ardently.
In their final moments together at Weill Hall Sunday evening, Mann and Panko come together once more for Lilacs by Sergei Rachmaninoff and Antonin Dvořak's "Song to the Moon" from Rusalka. Delivering the Rachmaninoff simply, they allow the poetry to speak for itself. In general, although her Russian diction causes no interference with her clear, bright vocal technique, her consonants need much more weight in this language, which could use more coaching and study. Regardless, the aria from Rusalka seems to flow out of the pair as if they truly had performed it together in their sleep previously several times.
Mann manages to jump extremes of emotion extremely quickly and without reservation in her final piece, reminding everyone in the audience of her utterly thorough exploration of love through music in this offering for the American Heart Association. For not one moment did I question her vocal abilities, her musical instincts, her breath technique, or her commitment to the music. After Natalie Mann and Jeffrey Planko graciously accepted their heartfelt applause, they floated offstage. When the audience leaped to applaud at the entrance of a stagehand, these talented musicians had accomplished one of the finest goals in performance: to always leave them wanting more.
A Recital of True Benefit