No more pertinent demonstration of the just reasons for Catherine Gayer’s status as a cult soprano among contemporary musicians could be imagined than her Tuesday night recital at the Schoenberg Institute at USC.
Gayer’s lengthy, overwhelmingly serious program would defeat virtually anyone else on the planet. Truth to tell, though the soprano still responds magnificently to the most complex musical challenges, after three decades of prominence her well-worn voice is increasingly daunted by the purely vocal ones.
From the outset, she sounded tremulous and overextended, especially at the top. Nonetheless, her musical acuity, textual incisiveness and unimpeachable authority made a fine case for six songs by Hanns Eisler and four by Berthold Turcke, the latter in their U.S. premiere.
Turcke’s engrossing pastiche of lyrical phrases, sprechstimme and detached fragments pressed particularly hard on the low register of an artist who began as a Queen of the Night-type soprano.
Aribert Reimann’s “Six Poems From Sylvia Plath’s ‘Ariel’ ” featured the composer as pianist. Gayer has championed these songs since they were new (1975) and, alas, their vocal hurdles have conquered her rather than vice versa.
Between executing (brilliantly) the jagged vocal line and contending against the turgid piano part, heavy on chord clusters, Gayer turned hoarse and remained so.
Her voice is no longer competitive in music requiring conventionally full, round tone or a facsimile of operatic effulgence. Her one-dimensional sound emerges stringy and blown-out instead. Thus five early Schoenberg songs (pre-1904), owing much to Brahms and Wolf, and six “Songs of a Love-Stricken Muezzin” (1922) by Szymanowski, sung in Polish, disappointed. The voice faltered and the pitch sagged, leaving the lush, sustained lines, echt Orientalisms and piquant melismas half-baked.
Axel Bauni, pianist for all but the Reimann, was wonderfully expressive, nonchalantly virtuosic and a superb colleague.