Recording of January 2019: Into the Fire

Joyce DiDonato: Into the Fire
Works by Heggie, Strauss, Debussy, Gruber, Lekeu
Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano; Brentano String Quartet
Erato 573802 (24/96, CD). 2018. Jeremy Hayes, prod.; Steve Portnoi, balance, mastering. DDD. TT: 77:38
Performance ****½
Sonics ****½

On the 2017 Winter Solstice, the astounding Joyce DiDonato—the coloratura mezzo-soprano from Kansas who zips through impossible runs of Rossinian roulades faster than anyone can shuck corn—took a break from opera to present a song recital in London's famed Wigmore Hall. With Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer's moving song cycle Into the Fire as its centerpiece, this live recording of DiDonato with the Brentano String Quartet confirms that she is a song interpreter of rare distinction.

Having attended the February 2012 world premiere of Into the Fire, composed for DiDonato and the Alexander String Quartet, I can attest that her interpretation of the 33-minute cycle has considerably deepened. Without ever crossing the dotted line between tragedy and melodrama, DiDonato revisits the heartbreaking story of Camille Claudel (1864–1943), the gifted sculptor and artist who, after a time as Rodin's model and lover, was virtually entombed in a mental asylum by her brother until her death 30 years later.

DiDonato immediately establishes her mastery by voicing Claudel's opening line, "Last night, I went to sleep completely naked," with a perfectly sweet, extended pianissimo. When her utterances become more dramatic, her tone is convincing, her commitment total. As Claudel sings on the night before she is taken away, DiDonato conveys her fear, powerlessness, and mounting paranoia. Years later, in 1929, when Jessie Lipscomb, who had shared a Paris studio with Claudel, visits her and snaps a historic photo of her friend, DiDonato sings, "Thank you for coming" with heartbreaking sweetness. Her surety and timing are unforgettable as she sings, unaccompanied, "A photograph? Just me and you. Yes. I understand. I must be very still." Equally striking is how she holds the last note of the last line, "Thank you for remembering . . . me," until it fades into nothingness. Complemented by the touching playing of the Brentanos, led by first violinist Mark Steinberg, this is a great performance.

DiDonato and the quartet also perform six early Strauss songs, in arrangements by the quartet's Misha Amory and Steinberg, and Debussy's Trois chansons de Bilitis, in an arrangement by Heggie. While the weight DiDonato puts on her voice in Strauss's delightful "All mein' Gedanken" (All my thoughts) makes her sound more like the young girl's mother than the girl herself—I wish she also hadn't darkened her voice for "Du meines Herzens Krönelein" (You my heart's coronet)—her technique is ideal for "Ach Lieb, ich muss nun scheiden" (Ah, my love, I must now leave). In addition, the sense of suspended wonder DiDonato brings to the precious "Die Nacht" (The Night) is magical; her ending will impel many a lieder lover to hit repeat.

Still, I can't get the lightness and gaiety that soprano Elisabeth Schumann brought to "All mein' Gedanken" out of my head, or forget how she suspended time as she voiced the climactic descending phrase of "Traum durch die Dämmerung" (Dream through the Twilight) as if it were a feather floating gently down from paradise. (Schumann toured the US with Strauss at the piano, and knew exactly what he wanted.) Both Schumann and mezzo-soprano Janet Baker are also better at expressing the holiness of "Morgen!" (Morning!), and take more welcome liberties with the final phrases. But for commitment and beauty of voice, DiDonato's Strauss will be treasured.

There are a million ways to sing Debussy's three Chansons de Bilitis for voice and piano, which DiDonato performs in Heggie's arrangement for string quartet. She is clearly a woman different from Maggie Teyte or Jane Bathori, both of whom sang with Debussy, or our generation's Marianne Crebassa and Sandrine Piau, whose recordings I've reviewed for Ultimately, what most matters is how perfectly DiDonato conveys the intimacy of these songs, and how beautifully she concludes them. That she is more assertive and dramatic than other interpreters—less classically French, perhaps—doesn't make her renditions any less valid. After all, these are Debussy's settings of poems by Pierre-Félix Louis, alias Pierre Louÿs (1870–1925), who pretended that they were translations of poems by the fictional Bilitis, a friend of Sappho's who lived on the Isle of Lesbos.

When we hear women sing these exquisite settings, it's essential to remember that they represent a collective male fantasy of women's love for each other written 121 years ago. It's only fitting that a strong 21st-century woman such as DiDonato present these intimate creations differently than did women in Debussy's time.

The recording includes two bonuses: an audience sing-along of "Silent Night," and the Brentanos' performance of 17-year-old Guillaume Lekeu's sorrowful, increasingly passionate Molto adagio. It's a gem.

The recording, which I auditioned in 24-bit/96kHz, is far more truthful to Wigmore Hall's acoustic than what we hear on Wigmore's own label. Into the Fire is an artistic and sonic triumph.—Jason Victor Serinus