By Caldwell Titcomb
One of the most engrossing concerts in ages took place on January 22 in the new 365-seat Distler Performance Hall at Tufts University, thanks to tenor Charles Blandy and pianist Linda Osborn-Blaschke. No Schubert. Schumann, Brahms or Wolf. Instead we were treated to an entire program of rarities, most of which I had never heard before. The three composers represented were Franz Liszt (1811-86), Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), and Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937).
Liszt’s piano and orchestral music is often programmed, but his songs turn up infrequently. Here we heard the three sonnets by the Italian poet Petrarch (1304-74) that Liszt set in 1839. Blandy chose to split them up, with “Pace non trovo” as the opener, “Benedetto sia’l giorno” in the middle, and “I vidi in terra” at the end. Liszt wrote demanding elaborations of all three for solo piano. These, especially the first in E-major, are favorites with pianists, but one was grateful to hear the original versions, the first of which requires the singer to soar to a high C-sharp.
Blandy offered a full dozen of Rachmaninoff’s eighty-odd songs. This composer suffered a three-year creative block and serious depression from 1897 to 1900. We heard four songs written shortly before, and eight dating from a few years afterwards. The songs cover a wide range of emotion and subject matter, and Blandy was in fine command throughout the evening, singing invariably on pitch and providing ringing high notes or lovely falsetto as suitable.
“Ne poi, krasavitsa” (‘Do not sing to me’), written in 1893 to a text by Pushkin, seems to tip its hat to the thematic material of Borodin’s tone poem “On the Steppes of Central Asia” (1880). I was also especially taken by “V’malchanyi nochi tainoi” (‘In the silence of the mysterious night,’ 1893) and “Vesenniye vody” (‘Spring waters,’ 1896).
Szymanowski was the leading Polish composer of the first half of the twentieth century. Blandy chose his 1911 cycle “Love Songs of Hafiz,” Op. 24. Szymanowski was attracted to Arabian-Persian culture, as evidenced by a number of his works. Hafiz was a Persian lyric poet who lived around 1320 to 1389. The composer here used a half-dozen German translations by Hans Bethge (1876-1946), a prolific anthologist. Bethge’s major claim to fame is “The Chinese Flute” (1907), from which Gustav Mahler drew seven texts for his great “Das Lied von der Erde” (1907-09). Bethge published his Hafiz translations in 1910, so Szymanowski lost no time in making his settings, which fall into his late-Romantic period.
Pianist Linda Osborn-Blaschke, faced with difficult scores, partnered Blandy superbly, although she at times overpowered the singer. The song texts were not printed in the program but instead projected on a screen above the stage. One emerged into the cold night with gratitude for a highly stimulating evening.