Bernarda Fink's Kimmel recital plunges deep into German art song waters

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Anthony Spiri and Bernarda Fink . She sang and he played piano in a Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital Friday. JULIA WESELYDOROTHEE FALKE

Now in her early 60s, mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink would seem to be in the summing-up phase of her career.

She recently sang Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde - a summit of sorts - with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, her emotional grasp of the piece compensating for her not having the contralto voice that's ideal in this piece. In her Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital on Friday at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater, she started by plunging into the deepest of German art song waters with selections from Hugo Wolf's Spanish and Italian songbooks, then looked backward with familiar Schumann and music that drew from her Slovenian heritage and Argentinian upbringing.

That's a lot of singing, especially with Wolf in the recital's opening throat-clearing slot. Everything went well, though only in Wolf's Italian songbook were Fink's distinctive text-coloring abilities particularly apparent. The voice now has patches of thin tone. But vocal beauty has only been one element of her charisma. The tranquil core of the voice was never obscured. Never an extravagant performer, Fink's manner is more pared-back than ever, honing in on any given song's essential DNA.

But from the first notes of the Schumann cycle Frauenliebe und Leben, Fink had a beautifully conceived sense what vocal tone fit the mood of each song in this Biedermeier marriage-to-widowhood cycle of life. All manner of expression seemed available to her, with her and Anthony Spiri coaxing meaning out of some of the less-interesting passages with subtle tempo flexibility. The emotional devastation of the final song had just the depth of tone and expression that has inspired such devotion from her admirers over the years.

The Slovenian songs by Lucijan Marija Skerjanc were pleasant enough, with conventional chord progressions interwoven with more exotic scales. The borderline parlor songs by Carlos Gustavino were similarly congenial but not terribly consequential.

Fink's most involving performance - and the recital's best discovery - was Alberto Ginastera's Five Popular Argentinian Songs, perhaps written as a counterpart to Manual de Falla's folk-inspired Spanish songs. Texts (whose author apparently isn't known) are earthy and, at times, pleasantly nonsensical, such as a freewheeling mediation on cats and "snub-nosed children" - with music that always moved in fun, unpredictable paths. In its own odd way, this early, 1943 cycle is a compositional tour de force. If this is Fink's way of summing up, one hopes that it continues for years to come.

dstearns@phillynews.com.