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Times Staff Writer

The most fascinating vocal recital of the year thus far took place at the Arnold Schoenberg Institute at USC on Friday night, when Melanie Tomasz sang largely unfamiliar music written in this century by Karol Szymanowski, Witold Lutoslawski, Luciano Berio and Charles Ives.

Largely unfamiliar but not entirely unknown music, that is. Pleasure-giving groups of Ives’ songs crop up in our busy listening lives with some frequency; Berio’s 20-year-old “Sequenza III” was revived just two months ago on a Philharmonic-sponsored Berio evening at the Japan America Theatre. Still, this was no program of chestnuts.

Lutoslawski’s important “Five Songs” to texts of Kazimiera Illakowicz probably have not been heard here in the three decades since their writing; Friday, with the composer in attendance, they made a strong, if belated, first appearance.


In Lutoslawski’s emerging (in 1957) harmonic style, which combines color and expressivity poignantly, these songs complement vocal writings by Britten and Barber of the same period, yet they can boast a consistent individuality.

Except that one missed a full measure of vocal warmth in the lowest octave (these songs, Lutoslawski has said, were written for a mezzo-soprano voice), Tomasz delivered these items with a nice appreciation of their poetic content. An American singer of Polish antecedents, Tomasz now teaches at Southern Illinois University.

Assisted carefully by pianist Margaret Simmons--and sometimes at dynamic levels higher than the small concert room at the institute could comfortably contain--the soprano brought similar care and affection and a very handsome sound to the post-Romantic, pre-Barber mellowness of seven songs by Szymanowski. Her characterful, sensual but sometimes unwieldy singing of Berio’s “Sequenza III” stood in strong contrast to Joan LaBarbara’s more detailed and objectified performance, heard here in November.

A hint of vocal fatigue and some technical inconsistencies marred the second half of this performance, especially the sad-making Ives group, which proved the opposite of uplifting.