In recital Saturday at the Bailey Center in Kennesaw, Measha Brueggergosman proved that she’s back. Or trying to get there. She was ravishing for her encore “Oh! Quand je dors,” a voluptuous Franz Liszt song to a Victor Hugo poem:
Oh! quand je dors, viens auprès de ma couche,
comme à Pétrarque apparaissait Laura,
Et qu’en passant ton haleine me touche…
Soudain ma bouche
(“Oh, when I sleep, approach my bed, as Laura appeared to Petrarch; as you pass, touch me with your breath … at once my lips will part.”)
With pianist Justus Zeyen, the Canadian soprano finally convinced us of her greatness in this encore. Her voice was distinctive, colorful and charismatic, with a sense of subtle drama and an elegant musical line. But it took her most of the program to get there. Curious.
The first time I heard Brueggergosman live, in 2004 at Spivey Hall, she was a fabulously gifted young singer (at 27) whose voice, and perhaps attitude, were not yet under control. She was a huge woman with a nuanced and oceanic instrument and Wagnerian potential — if she could hone her craft. On the recital stage she was chatty and boisterous. She seemed to invest herself more in pop-tinged cabaret songs than the old classical repertoire. Since then, the soprano has had emergency open-heart surgery, shed 150 pounds, cut back her two-foot Afro and buckled down her image.
Her two latest recordings, on Deutsche Grammophon, show this new-found seriousness. She’s radiant in Wagner’s “Wesendonck-Lieder,” coached as an Isolde-in-training by the Cleveland Orchestra’s fussy and exacting conductor Franz Welser-Möst.
In her Kennesaw recital — mostly standards in German, French and Spanish — she sang art songs partly drawn from another new CD, titled “Night and Dreams,” an album of serenades, lullabies and music lit by moonlight. The repertoire is strategically placed in her middle range, without soaring high notes or rumbling lows, and the premium is on language and subtle inflection.
She was slow to get her instrument warmed up for three songs apiece by Mozart and Schubert and seemed physically uncomfortable on stage at the start, rotating her head almost constantly while she sang, as if she were searching for the best signal on the radio dial. While her diction and interpretation for a Schubert song like “Nachtstück” were in some sense “correct,” she had little feeling for the line of the song. She seemed to over-emote in compensation. It was hard to hear her, or at least to make out what she was trying to do. Her voice sounded buttoned up.
Brueggergosman loosened up in songs by Henri Duparc and Joaquín Turina, with many lovely touches, although she delivered them in rounded phrases, never clearly etched. This suggested that, rather than declaiming the texts as a storyteller, she was singing the notes with proper pronunciation. On the recital platform, the difference is day and night. Still, in Duparc’s glowing “Phidylé,” she conveyed perfectly the balance of pastoral charm and sexy yearning.
German pianist Zeyen (at left) played splendidly Saturday, shading his accompaniments and attuned to inner voices. And it’s the first time I’ve heard the Bailey Center’s big Steinway sound fit for public performance. Unusual for a song recital — perhaps part of the soprano’s reputation makeover into a sober and “serious” artist — Zeyen performed two solo piano pieces, a very German-Lieder-recital thing to do. His reading of Schumann’s “Nachtstück” and Chopin’s D-flat Nocturne, Op. 27, no. 2, were nicely crafted and very clean but struck me as rather workmanlike, lacking poetry.
By inclination or preparation, the duo was best in the last set: seven intertwined German-language songs by Richard Strauss and Alban Berg. Brueggergosman made Berg’s “Nacht” seem happily neurotic despite its dark, harmonically unstable soundworld, though a psychologically potent line like “Und aus tiefen Grundes Düsterheit / blinken Lichter auf in stummer Nacht” (“And from the dark depths of the valley lights twinkle up in the silent night”) came off as more breezy than searching.
When she opened her voice at something like full power, in Strauss’ “Ständchen,” with its roiling piano part and erotic subtext, her voice induced shivers of pleasure, a reminder of why this soprano matters.