Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival: Shai Wosner, Aug. 2, and Inon Barnatan, Aug. 4, St. Francis Auditorium

Performance Santa Fe’s Festival of Song: Daniel Okulitch and Keri Alkema, July 28; Leah Crocetto, Aug. 4; Joshua Hopkins and Ben Bliss, Aug. 7, Scottish Rite Center

Pianist Shai Wosner came up with a clever idea for his Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival noontime recital on Aug. 2 at St. Francis Auditorium: an entire concert of impromptus. The impromptu is not one of music’s major genres, and it is hardly encountered apart from solo-piano music. The name suggests an off-the-cuff spirit, although, being precomposed, such works are not literally improvisations. Some musicologists are shy about going even that far. In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Second Edition), Maurice J.E. Brown writes that the impromptu is a composition “the nature of which may occasionally suggest improvisation, though the name probably derives from the casual way in which the inspiration for such a piece came to the composer.”

Impromptus arrived with the era of musical Romanticism, the title first appearing (so it seems) at the head of a work published in 1817 by the Czech composer Jan Václav Voríšek. The most famous of all impromptus followed in the immediately succeeding decades: Schubert’s two sets of four impromptus each, written in 1827, and Frédéric Chopin’s three impromptus produced in the span 1837 to 1842. Wosner included all three of Chopin’s and the four of Schubert’s second set (D.935). Rather than present them as self-standing groups, which is how one often encounters them, he sprinkled them as independent items in a playlist that also included standalone impromptus by Antonín Dvorák and George Gershwin, and two pieces that really were improvisations, short bits that Charles Ives let flow while the tape recorder was running, probably in 1938, and that were later transcribed (by others) for posterity.

In the performance of such a program, one might hope for a feeling of evanescence, a sense of the fleeting. Wosner did capture that in Gershwin’s whispering, well-bred, and wryly syncopated Impromptu in Two Keys, which slips harmlessly between C major and D-flat major like a Pekingese traversing an ice patch. One also heard it in Ives’ Improvisation No. 1, the recital’s penultimate piece, which hovered for perhaps a minute before floating off into Schubert. Apart from those, Wosner’s playing tended toward solidity. There were a few delicate touches in Schubert’s F-minor Impromptu (D.935, No. 1, the first of two in that key), but they were imposed on a squarish interpretation. That may be a legitimate way to play the piece, but it would impose certain corollaries. For example, it would leave little wiggle room for imprecision in the gentle sixteenth-note arpeggios that accompany the left hand’s crossings in the middle section; there, the lowest note in those murmuring figures was often under-articulated or even inaudible, yielding what sounded like separated motifs of three notes each rather than a constant unspooling of longer patterns. That may not sound like a big deal, but this motif plays a major role in defining the character of the entire piece. As the movement unrolls, imprecision of this sort takes a mounting toll, the more so if part of a generally literal reading. Schubert’s Impromptu in A-flat major also left one yearning for more magic. Wosner played it on the fast side, probably defensibly within the realm of allegretto, which is how Schubert marked it; but more important than the tempo per se was that the piece seemed hurried, which is surely not what the composer hoped to convey. The Chopin impromptus were firmly in hand and sometimes veered toward the muscular; again, they rarely suggested the momentary spark of creation.

A problematic issue in this recital was that the festival likes to keep the auditorium lights off entirely during performances. That’s just fine in most programs; but in this one, a succession of 11 pieces that shifted constantly from composer to composer, many audience members must have felt adrift. For listeners happy to simply settle back and enjoy an hour of piano-playing, it would be unobjectionable. But many aficionados of classical music like to know what they’re hearing at any point. Since the festival provides a printed program, it might want to ensure that the lights are dimmed only to a level that still allows a bit of visibility, at least in a variegated program such as this.

Two noons later, pianist Inon Barnatan proved himself an admirable Brahmsian, although he waited until his recital’s final piece to hammer the point home. It was that composer’s monumental Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel that did it, in an interpretation that respected the composer’s inherent gravitas without shortchanging other aspects of the work’s broad expressive range. Triplets took a tranquil stroll in the clearly voiced two-against-three rhythms of the Second Variation, the Third had a charming twinkle in its eye, and the Fifth communicated genuine mournfulness. The canon of the Sixth was shrouded in mystery, the Thirteenth was proudly dignified in its Magyar swagger, the Fourteenth suggested carnival jollity … and so on until Barnatan addressed the monstrously difficult fugue with unshakable aplomb. Reserves of power, colorful tone, and a singing but clear legato marked his pianism.

The first half of his recital had not reached the same level. He did not yet sound settled in for Brahms’ left-hand transcription of Bach’s D-minor Chaconne, where heavy pedaling did not conceal some imprecision in the finger-work. Ligeti’s Musica ricercata, written from 1951 to 1953, is an interesting composition, each of its 11 movements employing a specific group of pitches, from just two in the first movement to the complete chromatic palette of 12 in the eleventh. The pieces are rewarding for analysis, but I have never heard them make a great effect in performance, at least not in their 25-minute entirety. Barnatan did much good work along the way, even as his performance fell short of pristine. He rendered the fourth-movement waltz as both tipsy and somber (how Sibelius must have often felt, for example). The seventh movement is a bugbear, with the right hand singing a spacious melody against a constantly repeating high-velocity figuration in the left, which the composer indicates “is to be played very evenly, without any accent and independent of the right hand’s rhythm”; there was still work to be done on that left-hand evenness. Again, shedding a glimmer of light on the printed program might have helped the audience spot Ligeti’s references to more familiar repertoire through movements that are marked as homages to Bartók and Frescobaldi. All in all, the first half may have left some listeners fatigued, which was not the perfect set up to Brahms’ demanding Handel Variations.

Performance Santa Fe opened its annual Festival of Song series on July 28 at the Scottish Rite Center with a joint recital by bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch and soprano Keri Alkema. They are appearing as conflicting characters at Santa Fe Opera this summer — he as philandering Don Giovanni, she as Donna Elvira, a former conquest he would like to leave in his past. Nearly all of their program was given over to songs by Glen Roven, who shared piano duty with Joseph Illick, PSF’s artistic director. Roven’s Six Ancient Chinese Poems mostly meandered in the neo-romantic arioso style that currently dominates American art song. I was not won over by Alkema’s voice; possibly spot-on sustained pitches and a tone less defined by flutter would have enabled her to be a more compelling champion of these pieces.

Okulitch made a stronger case for Roven’s Santa Fe Songs, a group of eight pieces written to texts by poets associated with our city: Jimmy Santiago Baca, Jane Lin, N. Scott Momaday, Valerie Martínez, Christopher Buckley, and Thomas Fox Averill (the last two being represented by two poems each). Among the set’s more striking movements were “Signs and Portents” (poem by Lin), which sported depictive writing against a simple accompaniment; “Boy Soldier” (Momaday), which conveyed the tragic image of a felled fighter through broken turns of melody; and especially “Bowl” (Martínez), a poem of contemplation rendered active through repetitive figuration and sequences. Okulitch presented a voice of caramel complexity, vibrant and finely honed at all volumes and registers, and he infused excitement into many of the literary details.

On Aug. 4, soprano Leah Crocetto, this summer’s Donna Anna, joined with pianist Tamara Sanikidze for a program of songs and arias. Piano-accompanied opera excerpts very often sound awkward, and possibly their rendition of “Bel raggio lusinghier,” from Rossini’s Semiramide, would have seemed less so if Sanikidze had mastered her part in advance. Crocetto upheld her side of the bargain creditably, her large voice displaying the requisite power and agility. She sometimes situated her pitches just a touch on the low side; combined with her vibrato, it was not enough to sound flat, yet it added warmth to her sound. A short set of very familiar Strauss songs did little to equalize the disparate balance of the two performers. One wants time to stand still in the piano introduction to “Morgen!” but here the introduction was nothing more than the constipated pushing out of slow notes beat by beat. It was hard to imagine the same pianist was playing in the ensuing group of Rachmaninoff songs, rendered passionately by both parties. Still, the earlier troubles may have been haunting Crocetto, who, in one of three Liszt settings of Petrarch sonnets, brought the music to a halt not once but twice. Even apart from that, she seemed focused during that set on vocal production rather than on putting across the phrases and ideas of the poem; one wondered if her lapses may have indicated that she was thinking notes rather than thinking text. She was back on track to invest heartfelt sentiment into the beloved aria “Ain’t It a Pretty Night,” from Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, and then offered what she called a group of jazz selections, harking back to her journeyman years as a singing waitress. One really was a jazz rendition — Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood,” interpreted with fluent sensibility, far more note-centered than word-centered, rich in flatted quarter-tones. The others were agreeable concert-style performances of Broadway numbers: “A Quiet Thing,” from Flora the Red Menace (by John Kander and Fred Ebb), “All the Things You Are” from Very Warm for May (by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II), and, as an encore, “My Heart is So Full of You” from The Most Happy Fella (by Frank Loesser).

The series concluded on Aug. 7 with an enjoyable performance shared by baritone Joshua Hopkins and tenor Ben Bliss, with Illick at the piano. At the Opera this summer, they are rivals for the hand of the Countess in Capriccio. In this concert, they teamed up for another number in which they also portray romantic rivals — the inevitable but always lovely duet “Au fond du temple saint,” from Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles — and, less predictably, “Agony,” from Sondheim’s Into the Woods, in which two brothers compare their respective unobtainable loves. Hopkins opened the recital with Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel. His rich timbre, leavened with the brightness of overtones, combines with a quick vibrato to boost clarity of diction. One noticed a propensity to pull back on the highest notes practically to mezza voce. Perhaps he wanted to prevent those Es and Fs from overpowering their phrases, but it seemed as if he might have handled that issue as effectively at fuller voice with less disruption to the musical line. Or perhaps it was just a decision of the moment in what were satisfying and dramatic renditions. Bliss possesses a voice of smaller scale, but his tone is always attractive, his technique is secure, and his transitions to head voice are well-nigh perfect. If Hopkins tended toward gravity in his delivery, Bliss sometimes skated along the surface without digging very deeply into his songs. That was most noticeable in mélodies by Duparc, Chausson, and Hahn; possibly a more concentrated immersion in French phonetics would pay dividends in that regard. It was a delight to listen to him in these songs all the same, but he made greater impact when singing in English. His voice proved sweet and supple in a group of Britten settings. He forged an especially a strong connection with the audience in that composer’s “Sally in our Alley” and in Kern’s always remarkable “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” It was, in all, a pleasurable recital that mixed darkness and light and that brought together two artists of complementary voices and styles. ◀