Soprano Measha Brueggergosman brings gorgeous vibrato to campus

David Rubin

The Artist Series has a long and storied history. It’s incredible to think that the greatest musicians of the 20th century stood on the stage of the Lawrence Memorial Chapel: Sergei Prokofiev in 1921; Vladmir Horowitz in 1930; Marian Anderson in 1942. Not to mention a handful of the greatest violinists of the golden age and countless other performers.

I hope that in 20 or 30 years, conservatory nerds like me will giggle with delight when they discover that Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2011, soprano Measha Brueggergosman and pianist Justus Zeyen gave a recital on the stage of the Lawrence Memorial Chapel.

And what a recital it was.

At approximately 7:59 p.m. on Wednesday, I was a skeptic. Brueggergosman’s three-page biography seemed to list her every performance. A footnote on page five of the program mentioned that “Brueggergosman records exclusively for Deutsche Grammophon” and that “[her] jewelry is by Myles Mindham.”

There’s nothing wrong with such rhetorical flourishes, I suppose, but they don’t exactly scream “self-effacing artist.” Then again, if you’re one of the best sopranos in the world, I suppose you’re allowed to print a dramatic program every once in a while.

But as soon as Brueggergosman and Zeyen began performing, my mental dialogue halted, and I was won over completely.

The theme of this recital — “Night and Dreams,” based on the duo’s recent album — meant that the repertoire was not showy stuff. She could have titled the program “90 minutes of some of the slowest, most beautiful music ever written for high voice” and it would have worked, but I understand why she went for something more succinct.

The recital meandered from one ethereal set to the next, but it never got tiresome. Indeed, the programming made perfect sense. By the end of the evening, Brueggergosman and Zeyen had led the listener through 150 years of nocturnal music.

The stylistic differences between sets — the Schubert and Duparc, for instance — never felt jarring. Instead, each song group seemed informed and enriched by the ones that preceded it.

By the time Brueggergosman performed her final set — seven songs by, alternately, Richard Strauss and Alban Berg — the experience was historically and emotionally cathartic; one heard echoes of Schubert in the Strauss, and everything seemed to come full circle.

And what a voice! Rich and round, never harsh, with perfect, clear intonation and a gorgeous vibrato, which Brueggergosman varied to stunning effect. Several times, she used a straight tone that was spine-tingling in its purity and apparent effortlessness.

As my singer friends would inform me, however, nothing in this kind of performance is effortless, and by the end of the evening, I had huge respect for Brueggergosman’s virtuosity and absolute mastery of her instrument.

But the voice alone doesn’t tend to hold one’s interest for 90 minutes, so Brueggergosman’s communicative powers and interpretive insights deserve equal credit. Her performance of Joacquín Turina’s “Tres sonetos,” for example, conveyed the text with humor and abandon, and her renditions of Berg’s “Nacht,” “Liebesode”and “Schilflied” were powerfully moving.

Pianist Justus Zeyen played with fluid command, sensitivity and a gorgeous range of tone colors. At two points in the evening, he contributed beautifully performed solos: the second piece of Schumann’s collection “Nachstücke, op. 23” and Chopin’s “Nocturne in D-flat Major, op. 27.”

Brueggergosman performs barefoot and bows not just to her audience, but to her pianist as well. My neighbor seemed shocked by her unorthodox stage demeanor — horror of horrors, no heels! — but I thought it made perfect sense.

The relative informality made the performance feel less like a museum visit and more like a communicative act. That, I think, is how it should be.

In any case, by the time Brueggergosman and Zeyen sounded the final notes of Strauss’ “Ständchen, op. 17, no. 2,” it sounded as if the entire audience had, like me, been completely entranced by these two incredible musicians. An enthusiastic standing ovation merited an encore, and the duo obliged with, appropriately, Samuel Barber’s “Sure on this Shining Night.”