Review: Mezzo Bernarda Fink and pianist Anthony Spiri

Photo: Pete Checchia

Above all else, she makes a beautiful sound. Some singers are willing to forgo sound quality to put emotion behind a text. But in her Friday night recital for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society at the Perelman Theater, mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink swathed story after story in an unfailingly civilized tone.

Argentinean with Slovenian roots, Fink has the twin virtues of richness and clarity. Often it was impossible to separate her polish from that of her pianist, Anthony Spiri. In the fourth in a set of Schumann songs on texts by Nikolaus Lenau, “The Herdsgirl,” Fink’s sound was nearly indistinguishable from Spriri’s right hand, so neatly matched were they in pitch and color. That phenomenon repeated itself throughout the evening.

On a program weighted with Mahler (along with a charming subset of five from Dvořák’s Biblical Songs), the Schumann might have seemed, at first, less multidimensional. But hear what was going on in the piano part to “Loneliness” – a keyboard evoking the spindly tendrils of a dark forest grabbing at a visitor who has come seeking answers. When a troubled couple walks through a garden in “The Oppressive Evening,” piano and voice are pursuing paths so different they could be performing separate pieces, reaching concordance only upon a death wish.

Fink and Spiri constructed a program of thoughtful connections. After the “Requiem” that ends the Schumann set (with its harp-like piano writing), Mahler songs followed an arc – “Spring Morning,” trembling with imploring murmurs and bird trills, and then the horrific “The Earthly Life” from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. On a text from German folk poems, Mahler puts frantic music to a race between a starving child and a mother waiting for the corn to grow, be milled, and baked into bread. With the sounding of a piano note from the depths, you don’t need to hear the last line of the poem to know how it ends.

Not to leave us in despair, she finished the set with the bounty of “The Heavenly Life" and its images of angels baking bread and Saint Peter coaxing fish. “No worldly tumult,” is how the song describes its realm. Some of the transporting power of these works lies in Mahler’s otherworldly orchestrations. But Spiro was smart about this. He didn’t attempt to evoke bells or, in a Rückert-Lieder of admirable clarity, English horn; such is the nature of the piano that once you hit a note, you can’t sustain it the way an orchestra can. And so he brought out the pianistic possibilities instead. The audience made its own valuable contribution at the end of “The Heavenly Life.” No one wanted to applaud, a silence impossible to interpret as anything but gratitude for having been transported.