Dawn Upshaw displayed effortless musicianship and narrative magic Sunday with a substantial program of songs by Charles Ives, William Bolcom, Franz Schubert, Olivier Messiaen, and Béla Bartók. What’s more, the famed soprano appeared with the brilliant collaborative pianist Gilbert Kalish, well known for his sensitive support of generations of prominent songsters, including mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani and baritone Leslie Guinn. The theme for the program was no secret conceit — nothing more than “songs close to our hearts,” said Upshaw at the beginning of the recital. In short, the capacity audience enjoyed an afternoon of high-level song crafting by two masters who know the territory well.
Boldly launching into the peculiar harmonic language of Charles Ives, the concert began tenderly with the strains and sentiments of a composer who is particularly dear to both Upshaw and Kalish. The set of five songs all dealt with particular impressions of childhood, ranging from the mournful “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” which intimates in just a few lines the poignancies of parenthood, to the giddy “Very Pleasant,” which burbles with the restless expectancy of a child at a theater waiting for a show to begin. Capping the Ives, Kalish played the only solo piano work of the afternoon, the movement “The Alcotts” from Piano Sonata No. 2, Concord, Mass.
Next came a series of love songs by that supreme melodist, Franz Schubert. The emotional range of sweetness, longing, and agony gave Upshaw the latitude to soar and summon considerable power and intensity. Several selections featured Schubert’s settings of texts by the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, including the particularly powerful Gretchen am Spinnrade (“Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel”), which illustrates the mad revolving musings of a love-struck woman with a rapidly repeating figure in the piano and a heartrending climax in the singer’s narrative. Three songs by Olivier Messiaen set the composer’s own texts, including pieces from “Poèmes pour Mi,” a collection of songs dedicated to his wife, and a work which exhibited Messiaen’s devotion to ornithology. Mirroring the Ives, and bookending the concert in Americana, Upshaw and Kalish finished with compelling caricature narratives of William Bolcom, including “Song of Black Max.”