The poet Czeslaw Milosz once described literature as “a series of moments in the life of the species, coagulated into language.”
With only modest tweaking, this might also give us a more-than-serviceable pocket definition for the art song: “a series of moments in the life of the species, coagulated into music.”
Or at the very least this broader existential approach seems to inform the uncommonly eloquent programs assembled and performed by the New York Festival of Song. Art songs here are celebrated for the sensual pleasures they bring but also for the improbably numerous ways in which they open out onto larger worlds of history, poetry, and biography, distant geographic landscapes and the veiled interior regions within.
The programming alchemy of which this group is capable was once again placed on view this weekend in a concert titled “Warsaw Serenade.” An afternoon exploring two centuries of obscure Polish art songs may sound more like a dry academic seminar. Yet in Sunday’s performance at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, it instead offered a richly compelling encounter with the beauty and complex resonance of an all but invisible repertoire.
Long a fixture of New York’s music scene, NYFOS, now in its 26th season, was cofounded by pianists Steven Blier and Michael Barrett. They shared keyboard responsibilities on Sunday, but it was Blier whose printed essay and spoken commentary, marbled with playful lines of wit, erudition and anecdote, gave the program its distinctive personal touch. Also notable is that Blier carries out his duties as curator, researcher, writer, accompanist, and salon host while struggling with a form of muscular dystrophy that severely limits almost all motion. On Sunday, after entering the hall on a wheelchair and being helped to his seat at the piano, he confessed that this program, with its Boston performance in the wake of a snow storm, was one of the most difficult in the history of NYFOS.
You wouldn’t know it from Sunday’s performance, which opened with a song by Stanislaw Moniuszko, a contemporary of Chopin, given a muscular and vital account by tenor Joseph Kaiser. Kaiser, in excellent voice, shared the afternoon’s vocal duties with the gifted soprano Dina Kuznetsova, who followed the Moniuszko with a deeply felt account of Edward Pallasz’s “Matki czlowieczej lament” (“Lament of the mother of mankind“), a song that brims with a particularly Slavic combination of primordial sadness and luminous beauty.
A different register of loss informs the Seven Yiddish Songs (Op. 13) of Mieczyslaw’s Weinberg, a Polish-born Jewish composer who fled to Russia in 1939 and became a close friend of Dmitri Shostakovich. Weinberg’s presence has long been discernible as an influence on Shostakovich’s artistic orbit, but Weinberg’s own fascinating voice is only now starting to reach a wider audience, with his Holocaust opera “The Passenger” en route to the Lincoln Center Festival this summer.
The Yiddish songs performed on Sunday set off on a deceptively folksy and innocent note, conjuring memories and souvenirs of childhood — a little loaf of bread, a mother’s lullaby — in the poetry of I. L. Peretz. Nothing however prepares you for the rupture of the sixth song, “The orphan’s letter.” Tragedy here is conveyed with both understatement and searing directness.
A grouping of four concise songs from the mid-20th century served as vivid introduction to the sharply drawn vocal writing of Grazyna Bacewicz (1909-69). And another set of songs deftly distilled the creative evolution of the best known composer on this program, Karol Szymanowski, from an early Wagnerian phase, through two periods of reinvention and liberation as reflected in one of the highly erotic “Songs of the Infatuated Muezzin,” to a proudly nationalistic stage, less overtly sensual but still wonderfully polychrome, sampled in a selection from his “Kurpian Songs.”
The formal program ended with Pade-rewski’s “Piper’s Song.” It is, in truth, not the most sophisticated of vocal gems but here it was given a rendition so gleaming and open-hearted, you forgot to notice.