OPERA NEWS - Holger Falk & Julius Drake
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In Review > Concerts and Recitals

Holger Falk & Julius Drake

The Frick Collection

THERE WAS AN UNEXPECTED INTERRUPTION at baritone Holger Falk’s New York recital debut at The Frick Collection on Sunday, October 21. The climatic silence before the end of “Ostersonntag,” the fourth and penultimate song in Hanns Eisler’s Hollywooder Liederbuch, was shattered by the ring of a patron’s cell phone. After a prolonged pause, Falk eased the tension by saying: “We shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously!” and began the song again. 

This tension between the serious and the nonchalant set the tone for this recital given by Falk and the esteemed pianist and song interpreter Julius Drake. The theme of the recital was longing: for home, for love, for simpler times, for spiritual peace. Falk and Drake explored these different facets through works by Schubert, Eisler, Poulenc, and Satie that accentuated the best of Falk’s talents as a singing storyteller.

Falk introduced himself to the audience with five late songs by Schubert. The mostly strophic and text-heavy songs felt redundant, but Falk displayed a masterful ability to create a distinct mood, atmosphere, and personality for each, whether dreamy and awe-filled in “Der Wanderer an den Mond,” or youthful and effusive in “Bei dir allein.”

The bulk of the recital was two collections of songs by Hanns Eisler, the Austrian composer, who was one of many exiled composers who escaped Nazi Germany and altered the course of American musical culture. His Hollywooder Liederbuch and Five Hollywood Elegien, both with texts by Bertolt Brecht, provide an outsider’s cynical commentary on artistic life in Hollywood in the 1930 and 40s. For most the ten songs Eisler relies on slow moving harmonic progressions that inch forward, gaining musical and dramatic momentum through repeated chords and ethereal, understated melodies. Falk performed both cycles with unwavering focus and commitment. They also fit his light baritone perfectly, allowing him to color his instrument with myriad shades of indigo and violet to show Eisler’s shell-shocked longing for familiar territory in the stand-alone song, “Die Heimkehr.”

The second half of the recital gave Falk the opportunity to relax into song cycles by Poulenc and Satie. Like Eisler, Poulenc is an ideal match for Falk’s abilities. He sang “L’Espionne,” the first song in Poulenc’s Calligrammes with a silver thread of a voice before launching into the silly humor of “Mutation” and “Aussi bien que les cigales.” Later, in Poulenc’s Banalités, he sang a delightfully subtle “Hôtel,” and a spot-on version of “Voyage à Paris” that bordered on parody. 

Falk offered two wordless songs by Satie: in “Enfant-martyre” he stood with his hands clasped before him while he pursed his lips together and imitated the sounds of a far-off muted trumpet, while Drake accompanied, straight-faced; in “Rambouillet,” Falk showed off his talents as a whistler. Falk leans into the childlike simplicity and joy of Satie’s song cycle, Ludions, is childlike in its simplicity and youthful joy, committing fully to each song, whether having fun with an American accent in “La grenouille américaine,” or singing with wide-eyed sincerity, “Air du poète.”

Falk and Drake offered two encores. The first was a brassy, over-the-top version of Satie’s “Je te veux.” The second was a haunting performance of Hanns Eisler’s “A German Soldier at Stalingrad.” Though Falk had advised the audience not to take itself too seriously it was clear that Falk is at his best as a singer and an interpreter when the stakes are high.  —Steven Jude Tietjen

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