When, in his Celebrity Series recital on Friday, baritone Nathan Gunn sang “I hold no grudge” — in “Ich grolle nicht,” the pivot of Robert Schumann’s “Dichterliebe” — for once, you actually believed it. Schumann’s song cycle and Heinrich Heine’s text portray a writer who loves, loses, and then fails to convince himself that he’s OK with it. But Gunn is such an instinctively genial performer that, indeed, he didn’t seem capable of holding a grudge against anyone. Flares of anger quickly subsided; woe was kept at arm’s-length. This was a “Dichterliebe” in which the poet, rather than being in the grip of despair, regarded it with self-defensive coolness.
It was, however, vocally splendid. Gunn’s baritone is an object lesson in beautiful technique, vowels perfectly placed, the color balanced between bright and dark, consistently rich from top to bottom. After warming up through the opening set — five relatively happy love songs by Franz Schubert, all legato contentment — high notes rang free and clear. (At the piano, Julie Gunn also emphasized clarity, with a slightly percussive touch and a relish for complexity, élan increasing with the density of notes.)
The program — German and American halves — had subtle built-in mirrors. Schubert’s “Auf der Bruck,” a lover happily charging on horseback to a romantic rendezvous, was answered by the more romantically apocalyptic gallop of Samuel Barber’s “I Hear an Army” — itself echoed by the glorious mania of Charles Ives’s “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven.” Barber’s “With Rue My Heart Is Laden” contrasted with the more solacing nostalgia of Ives’s “Down East.” “An Old Flame,” Ives’s go at a Gilded Age pop song, set up a selection of William Bolcom’s “Cabaret Songs.”
Nathan Gunn, baritone; Julie Gunn, pianist
The highlights were either intensely sustained moods — Ives’s “Tom Sails Away” and, especially, Barber’s bewitching “Nocturne” — or those moments when Gunn physically embodied a character in full: Schumann’s sarcastic “Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen” and Ives’s droll “The Circus Band” snapped into focus with Gunn’s body language.
In the Bolcom set, the cross-dressing poignancy of “Georgia” was overplayed, but the patter of “Fur (Murray the Furrier)” and the chromatic flirtations of “Over the Piano” alternated punch line glee with confident understatement. Gunn comfortably settled into the focus on sheer entertainment value. Even Harburg and Gorney’s “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” — the encore — was as much showpiece as censure, a protest in evening clothes. But Gunn makes sheer style hard to begrudge.