Even in a Liszt anniversary year that has swept vast quantities of his music onto concert stages, the composer’s art songs, roughly 80 in total, remain an underexplored corner of his work. This made the second half of Friday night’s Brahms-Liszt recital, given by Austrian mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager and French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, all the more welcome. The evening took place in Jordan Hall, and was presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston.
The Liszt offerings began with two settings of Heinrich Heine’s poetry, including the gently undulating “Im Rhein, im schönen Strome,’’ sung by Kirchschlager with a warm luxurious tone. The veil of prettiness however was quickly cast aside - shredded may be more like it - with Liszt’s embittered “Vergiftet sind meine Lieder,’’ a compact molotov cocktail of a song that conveys the anguish of failed love with a terse ferocity. The piano opens with dissonant stabs that preface Liszt’s sharp declamatory setting of the words “Poisoned are my songs - How could it be otherwise?’’ Kirchschlager and Thibaudet captured the demonic intensity of this song, albeit with slightly softened edges.
In a lovely contrast, they followed it with “Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh’’ (“Over all the peaks it is peaceful’’), Liszt’s inward, serene setting of a text by Goethe, here warmly glowing and full of artful silences that evoked the stillness of Goethe’s forests. The piano writing here and in “Der du von dem Himmel bist’’ (“You who are from heaven’’) is more spare than one might expect from Liszt, and Thibaudet was an elegant partner, never overpowering. He also embraced the overt theatricality of works such as “Die drei Zigeuner’’ (“The three gypsies’’), in which Liszt cannot resist adorning the piano part with virtuoso filigree of the sort that fills the Hungarian rhapsodies. Thibaudet also gave opulent if slightly remote accounts of two brief solo works, Liszt’s Consolation No. 3 and a Brahms Intermezzo (Op. 118, No. 2).
The portion of the recital devoted to Brahms’s songs drew attractive though less distinctive artistry from Kirchschlager. Her sometimes understated delivery of selections from “Deutsche Volkslieder’’ suggested she did not want to dramatically over-freight these folk songs, though “Feinsliebchen, du sollst’’ was by turns coquettish and earthy. Yet in complexly expansive songs such as “Von ewiger Liebe,’’ one wished for a bit more beyond the vocal beauty: specifically, a wider range of color, tone, and vibrato, and more generally, a greater sense of emotional specificity in her responses to text. She capped the night with two tenderly delivered encores, Liszt’s “Es muss ein Wunderbares sein’’ and Brahms’s “Sandmännchen.’’
From the perspective of audience engagement, the absence of any program notes and the lack of proper crediting of song texts was unfortunate. So were the acres of empty seats for a recital by prominent artists taking place inside an undergraduate conservatory. The Celebrity Series would seem to need a better system for getting its unsold tickets into the hands of students.Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.