Though few corners of the classical music world have the cultivated dignity of song recitals, they're also places where a singer's emotions of the moment can't hide behind characters, plots, or costumes.
Only an hour or so before singing his all-Schubert joint recital with soprano Susanna Phillips, bass-baritone Eric Owens learned that Tuesday's Germanwings plane crash in the French Alps had killed his fellow Metropolitan Opera Wagnerite contralto Maria Radner, who sang Erda to his Alberich in Das Rheingold. Not until after intermission did he mention it and explain he was so tearful - by way of explaining his need to use a music stand to stay better focused on the program at hand.
"She was the most incredible soul you could ever meet," he said. "And what song repertoire doesn't rise to the occasion and slap you in the face?"
Upon arriving at his last song on the program, Schubert's simple paean to the medium to which he devoted his life, "An die Musik," Owens moved his music stand closer to the audience, saying, "This is for all of us." You wondered, at times, whether he was going to get through the song, in a performance of overwhelming but understated emotionalism.
It was a moment when history overtakes art - like Felicity Lott's Carnegie Hall performance of Strauss' Four Last Songs after the 2003 Columbia space-shuttle disaster, or the Mozart Requiem recording made by La Chapelle de Quebec shortly after 9/11.
Before his post-intermission speech, it seemed that Owens was having trouble scaling back his voice after a run of Flying Dutchman performances in Washington. Once he got past a borderline-rocky "Auf dem Strom" with Philadelphia Orchestra hornist Jennifer Montone, his sense of expression still lacked great precision, but showed plenty of evidence of what a well-studied, resourceful Schubert interpreter he is, in ways that were wonderfully complementary to recital partner Phillips.
While Owens is a master storyteller, who often gives not just the characters of the song's scenario but the larger world in which they exist, Phillips delivers an almost microscopically close reading of the song and its protagonists, revealed with the detail of a fine Shakespearean actress. Never does she force her Mozart-weight voice while hitting various emotional peaks. No longer a merely promising young singer, she's a mature artist with a highly personal relationship with Schubert.
One wondered why she chose Schubert's poetically verbose portrait of a jilted bride in "Viola D. 786" until one realized how deeply she felt the music and its characters. And in one of Schubert's best-known songs, "Gretchen am Spinnrade," her portrait of this victim of romance with Faust had the dramatic range of a full-length opera, aided by tempos from racing anticipation to the standstill of devastation.
That performance was also evidence of a particularly imaginative collaboration with pianist Myra Huang, who didn't take the rippling arpeggios at face value, but shaded them with appropriate foreboding. She ended the recital with "The Shepherd on the Rock" with Philadelphia Orchestra clarinetist Ricardo Morales, with a playfully rollicking final tempo that was a particularly welcome contrast to the more reverent Marlboro Festival approach we're used to.