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Olmos Ensemble

A glorious night for Strauss, sung and bowed

October 27, 2010

In all of music, few moments can match the unearthly beauty in our ears, the shiver in our skins, the catch in our throats, when we hear Richard Strauss’s “Befreit,” a song of impending loss, when it is sung as sensitively as it was by soprano Linda Poetschke at the apex of an Olmos Ensemble concert, Oct. 26.

And of those few comparably beautiful moments, an unseemly number also came from Strauss. Example: The ecstatic “Morgen,” which followed “Befreit” in Poetschke’s set of three Strauss songs. 

Strauss called himself “a first-class second-rate composer,” and honest assessment would have to agree that he does not occupy the same plane of profundity or organicity as a Bach, a Mozart, a Beethoven, a Brahms.

But Strauss possessed two great gifts as a composer of vocal music. One was his ability to mold harmony to convey intense, shifting emotions -- and even conflicting emotions, simultaneously.

Another was his habit of setting a text in a way that made the singer a full collaborator in the creative process. Too, his method of working closely with singers such as Lotte Lehman and Elisabeth Schumann established a tradition that has been passed down to the present and that is as much a part of the composition as the printed score. It is always the case that music lives in the performance, not on the page, but Strauss demands that his singers carry a heavier interpretive burden than other composers do. Great singers have responded with great artistry.

Poetsche, of course, rose to the occasion, too, with the sumptuous support of pianist Warren Jones. She opened with “Wiegenlied,” the lullaby that is one of Strauss’s best-known songs, which she delivered with touching simplicity and unaffected freedom.

“Befreit”(“Freed”) carried the familial theme into darker territory. In the poem by Richard Dehmel, a husband speaks to his dying wife: “We both know it will be very soon; we have freed each other from sorrow.” (Lotte Lehman relayed the story, attributed to a close friend of  Dehmel’s, that he he wrote it upon the death of his own wife.) With its weave of love, sadness and joy, this is surely one of the greatest of all songs, and the tenderness Poetschke brought to it was something to cherish. The naturalness of her rhythm, the way she matched vocal color to the sense of the text, her glorious sustained high G-sharp on “weinen” (“weeping”) near the end, the unshakeable faith she brought to the words “O Glück!” (“O joy!) that end each stanza ... well, what can one say?

In “Morgen” (“Tomorrow”), to a poem by John Henry Mackay,  lovers who are apart hope to be reunited. (It was one of a set of songs that Strauss gave to his wife as a wedding present.) Both Poetschke and Jones caressed the musical line as if it were a lover’s body, and they chose a tempo that seemed almost to make time stand still, but the phrasing was always full of life.

Strauss also was represented by his Violin Sonata, composed in the late 1880s, about a decade before the three songs. The music is highly eventful and dramatic, still showing traces of the influence of Brahms but also anticipating some of Strauss’s own mature style.

It was given a terrific performance -- fearless, energetic, vividly colored -- by violinist Matthew Zerweck (one of the brightest gems on the San Antonio Symphony’s roster) and Jones.

Poetschke, aided by Zerweck and Jones, opened the concert with the aria “L’amerò, sarò constante” from Mozart’s “Il Re Pastore.” The singer’s bright but warm and satiny instrument seemed ideally suited to this music.

Oboist (and Olmos artistic director) Mark Ackerman played with lovely tone in Robert Schumann’s Three Romances for oboe and piano, but he seemed less attuned to Schumann’s breadth and intensity than was Jones.  
Mike Greenberg