One of the best song recitals of last season was given by Stephanie Blythe, together with John Relyea. The mezzo-soprano and the bass-baritone sang jointly in the Metropolitan Museum's Temple of Dendur. Warren Jones accompanied them on the piano.
Last Thursday, Ms. Blythe had a recital of her own, again accompanied by Mr. Jones. The venue was Zankel Hall, a most "exposed" atmosphere, particularly for singers. And Ms. Blythe has a very, very big voice. I like a big voice in recital, and I hope you do, too. A voice should be itself, of whatever size. And a big voice can be positively marvelous in recital.
I remember how Violeta Urmana, the Lithuanian soprano, peeled the gold paint off Salzburg's Mozarteum. And she was perfectly musical. Just a few weeks ago, the Swedish baritone Peter Mattei sang at the Morgan Library, and let it all hang out — beautifully and musically. A big voice must not apologize for itself. And a recitalist need not be mousy, at all.
Let Poland be Poland, let Reagan be Reagan — and let a big voice be a big voice. Music, including the song repertory, can accommodate it.
As it happened, Ms. Blythe did not have her best night. Her voice was not as it should be, and neither was her thinking. But she still provided a fine recital.
She started with music that ought to be right up her alley: a group of Brahms songs (five). Her great low-voiced predecessors sang them: Anderson, Ferrier, Ludwig, Horne. From the first notes, I noticed something in Ms. Blythe that I had never noticed before, in many, many hearings: a metallic edge. Her usual portions of warmth, lushness, and resonance were missing. Moreover, her singing was not as even as we have come to expect.
Still, this was Stephanie Blythe, and she had stirring moments — for example, the end of Brahms's "Botschaft." You should have heard the generosity, the majesty!
Unsurprisingly, Mr. Jones was a full partner of his singer, ensuring a total Brahms experience. I continue to note a specialty of his: smoothness of line. Mr. Jones will simply not lay a bad accent on you.
After this initial set, the vocal recital turned into a piano recital, as Mr. Jones played three pieces of Brahms. This has been happening more and more: An accompanist will step into the spotlight, solo. I wonder why accompanists feel they have to do this (and why singers permit it). Is it humiliating — emasculating — merely to accompany? Did Franz Rupp have to shove Anderson aside? Did Erik Werba have to prove he could play Schubert impromptus, while Christa cooled her heels offstage? Did Gerald Moore have to tell Fischer-Dieskau to get lost?
In any case, Mr. Jones played decently — but the trend is worrying. It's one thing if Richard Goode does it, during a Dawn Upshaw recital; he's a concert pianist. But Mr. Jones and Martin Katz are doing it, and they are professional accompanists! There is no dishonor in that position, as I'm sure they would agree.
When Ms. Blythe returned, she sang more Brahms, this time the "Vier ernste Gesänge." The first three songs are from the Old Testament, and the last is from the New. You might say that Ms. Blythe has a classically Old Testament voice. So, incidentally, did a soprano, Eleanor Steber. When she sang "Hear ye, Israel!" (from Mendelssohn's "Elijah"), she sounded like a prophet.
Ms. Blythe sang her Brahms with unquestionable authority, but also with some uncertain intonation. And that final song — about faith, hope, and charity — could have used more light and love than Ms. Blythe brought into it.
After intermission, she went French, singing three items from the tiny but excellent output of Henri Duparc. In the middle song, "Chanson triste," she sounded just like the Blythe we have long known: She was direct, warm, and enveloping. And she sang the last song — "Au pays où se fait la guerre" — with quasi-operatic grandeur, without overdoing it. At the piano, Mr. Jones strongly aided the drama.
And the program ended with Falla's "Siete canciones populares españolas." They are popular indeed, as singers can never stop performing them. They were a vehicle for Marilyn Horne, and have been so for countless others. Let it be understood that Blythe and Jones did not replace de los Angeles and de Larrocha. But they were not totally whitebread.
For one thing, Ms. Blythe tried to go native by singing a "c" or "z" as a "th." She was not consistent in this, however. And the songs could have used far more flavor."Seguidilla murciana" lacked joy and spring. "Jota" was surprisingly stiff and unflowing, from both mezzo and pianist. "Canción" was rather good. But "Polo" might have been more demonic — again, from both singer and pianist — and Ms. Blythe gave the final note an upward yelp that was not terribly helpful.
But the crowd seemed to love it, and Ms. Blythe obliged them with two encores, sticking with the Spanish. First came Montsalvatge's lullaby, the one beginning "Ninghe, ninghe." It is beloved the world over, and for good reason. Ms. Blythe can sing it better — much. She can sing it with (a) greater purity of sound,(b) a better legato, and (c) better intonation. And she closed with another Montsalvatge song, "Canto negro," which she made a total sass-fest. It was okay.
As I've said, I have heard Ms. Blythe many times: in recital, opera, oratorio, you name it. I have never heard her as bad as she was on Thursday night. But, you know? She was still damn good. Tiger Woods annoys his fellow pros by noting that he can win without his "A game." He can even win with his C game. So can Ms. Blythe.