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Music Review : A Poignant Goodby From Elly Ameling

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Elly Ameling said goodby to a thousand of her nearest and dearest friends Sunday afternoon. It was--and wasn’t--a sentimental occasion.

The locale was Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center. The occasion was a recital commemorating the beloved Dutch soprano’s farewell to New York. Other valedictories are to follow in other cities this year, but, for reasons unfathomable, Los Angeles will not be among them.

If all had gone as planned, the New York concert would have been a singular event. The demand for tickets was so great, however, that Ameling agreed to add a preview program a week earlier. It, too, attracted a capacity crowd.

Ameling, who made her debut in 1953, never had a conventional career. No doubt, she never wanted one.

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Her voice, a light and limpid soprano, was always small. Her temperament was never regarded as flamboyant. Her expressive scale was predicated on subtlety. She ventured few excursions into opera.

But, in a world dominated by easy flash and cool vulgarity, she proved the enduring value of certain old-fashioned virtues: imagination, warmth, taste, sensitivity, honesty and refinement.

She proved it in solo recitals, and in concerts with such discerning, disparate conductors as Ansermet, Giulini, Sawallisch, Previn and Ozawa. She proved it in international centers from Tasmania to Iceland and from Nairobi to Finland. She proved it in a wide-ranging discography that exceeds 150 recordings.

At the beginning of her career, she shaved a few years off her age. That little statistical adjustment represents a rare, wholly uncharacteristic flight of prima-donna fancy. She now admits to being 62, and apparently feels it is time to stop.

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Although her final New York recital revealed certain losses in vocal prowess, she hardly sounded like an artist for whom admirers must make excuses. She merely called upon her extraordinary intelligence to compensate for a dry tone here and an unsteady one there. With her interpretive gifts, she could continue for a long time.

She never seemed to be an artist, however, who settled for compromises. She was too straightforward for that.

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The unavoidable sentiment at Alice Tully Hall on Sunday involved the knowledge--on both sides of the footlights--that a unique era was coming to an end. The lack of sentiment emanated from the soprano herself. She clearly intended to avoid mawkish gestures at this cadential event, just as she had been avoiding them for 42 years.

The most emotional challenge came at the beginning, with Schumann’s “Frauenliebe und -leben.” Ameling could not suggest much romantic rapture for the extrovert passages, but she conveyed ample purity and pathos in the reflective songs that dominate the cycle. Her pianissimo still shimmers; she still articulates the text exquisitely.

Here, and throughout the afternoon, Rudolf Jansen provided piano accompaniments better described as collaborations. He knew exactly when to follow and when to lead and did both with properly muted virtuosity.

As an antidote to the poignancy of Schumann, Ameling chose the piquancy of Mussorgsky--specifically the character studies called “Detskaya,” or “The Nursery” or, in this instance, “Kinderstube.” The soprano reinforced the inherent lyricism with disarming degrees of wit and charm. Under the circumstances, only a critical churl would question her decision to sing the crusty Russian texts in a cutesy German translation.

After intermission, she defined the fragile rhetoric of Poulenc’s “Fiancailles pour Rire” with a perfect fusion of sensuality and elegance. Then, as an official parting gesture, she offered six Lieder of Hugo Wolf--all impeccable in poise, pristine in color, sharp in focus.

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It could not have been an accident that the last whimsical miniature on the agenda, “Mogen alle bosen Zungen,” ends with a phrase that carried contextual significance.

“Ich lieb’ und bin geliebt,” sang Ameling to her admirers. “I love and am loved.”

There had to be standing ovations and, of course, encores. There were no tears, however, and no exit indulgences.

Ameling resisted making speeches. She did not even sing “An die Musik.”

She acknowledged a single floral tribute (many others must have waited in the wings). Then she added songs by Wolf, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Schubert.

A defining message turned up in the second encore: Wolf’s “Auch kleine Dinge konnen uns entzucken.” Ameling knew what she was singing. “Small things can also enchant us.”

The audience would gladly have stayed for another hour or two. But the soprano understood when enough might border on too much. After the fifth encore, she simply picked up her bouquet from the piano lid, smiled, mimed a last thank you, and was gone.

The era ended quietly.

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