According to soprano Martha Guth and pianist Penelope Crawford, the best acoustics for chamber music in North America are to be found in churches. This is especially true for art songs, which in the Germanic tradition are called Lieder. On Saturday, March 5, the Academy of Early Music will present Guth and Crawford in an evening devoted to Mozart and Schubert at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church.
Places of worship, says Guth, are conducive to a contemplative spirit that heightens the atmosphere one wishes to create while performing these intimate pieces. She greatly enjoys singing where the acoustics allow the voice to “fly.” You can hear that effect in the duo’s album of Schubert Lieder, recorded at the First Presbyterian Church in Ypsilanti. There are moments when the church seems to have taken on the dimensions of a cathedral, magnified by the voice of Guth, who can sing like an angel.
The Schubert songs chosen for the recital on March 5 include three settings of verses from Sir Walter Scott’s “Lady of the Lake” (including the familiar “Ave Maria”) and two from Goethe’s “Book of Suleika,” that notably amorous chapter in his West-East Divan, a collection inspired by the fourteenth-century Persian poet Hafiz. Schubert’s Suleika songs originated as love letters that Marianne von Willemer sent to Goethe. Guth suggests that Goethe may have thought he was honoring Willemer by publishing her verses as his own.
Mastersinger Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau wrote that if Schubert’s melodies could be called his breath, then his rhythms are surely his heartbeats. This quote resonates with Crawford, who feels that Schubert’s accompaniments supply the emotional context for the songs more beautifully than those of any other composer. Guth adds that with Schubert the piano takes on multiple roles, sometimes simultaneously: it can comment on or be partner to the text; it may become the scenery, or even constitute the complete psychological framework for a character.
The piano will speak for itself when Crawford performs alone, playing the only two of Schubert’s Op. 90 Impromptus that fit the range of her custom made, five-and-a-half octave fortepiano, as well as Mozart’s delightful and surprising variations on the old French folk song “Ah vous dirai-je, maman.” The theme is instantly recognizable as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” but in Mozart’s hands, this nursery rhyme undergoes an expansive series of transformations.
Mozart’s vocal portion of the program will consist of a cheery song of love and physical attraction; a wistful ode to solitude; reflections on the inevitability of death; a song of longing for a distant lover (that is actually being addressed to a zither); and a histrionic depiction of a young lady singing to letters sent by her unfaithful lover while they crackle and turn to glowing ashes in the fireplace.