Elina Garanca. Photo: Opéra national de Paris

On Sunday afternoon, Elina Garanca, the Latvian mezzo-soprano, gave a recital in Carnegie Hall. She began with Brahms—indeed, the first half of the program was all-Brahms, comprising fourteen songs.

I have long maintained that Brahms is underrated as a song composer. Weird statement, possibly. But when you think of song composers, you think of Schubert, Schumann, Wolf, Strauss, others. Maybe not Brahms.

Brahms, people think of for piano pieces, and chamber music, and concertos, and symphonies. Maybe his German Requiem? But what a composer of songs. They are Brahmsian, if I may: warm, deep, consoling, personal, friendly.

At Carnegie Hall, Garanca sang some famous ones, such as “Sapphische Ode,” “Die Mainacht,” and “Von ewiger Liebe.” But she also sang a lot of non-famous ones. I’ll tell you where I learned a lot of Brahms songs, years ago: from a Christa Ludwig collection, here.

Ludwig was Brahmsian, and so is Garanca. She wrapped her beautiful, warm, lush mezzo around those songs. Often, she had a quality that I can best describe as “motherly.” She spent most of the time below the break, i.e., the break in her voice. Brahms loves those low tones. When she went above the break, she was always deft, and sometimes thrilling.

She had some wayward notes here and there, but this mainly served to remind us that we were not listening to a studio recording. There’s nothing like live, warts and all.

“Von ewiger Liebe” is one of the best songs in the entire repertoire. It is one of the best matches of text and music. It is a mini-opera, and a very Brahmsian opera. (That’s a funny concept: a Brahmsian opera.) It is Brahms at his best.

And I have never heard it better than from Garanca. Equally good, yes. But never better, from anybody, including all the greats.

I have gone a long way in this post without mentioning the pianist, haven’t I? That’s because he was a close friend of mine, Kevin Murphy. So I can’t give you a proper review. Allow me to say, however, that Kevin was marvelous. That’s not for me to say. But it’s still true.

They began the second half of their recital with three songs of Duparc—which is a significant percentage of his output. He wrote only seventeen songs, or perhaps I should say he preserved only seventeen. With Duparc, it is quality, not quantity. And what quality.

Garanca and Murphy began with “Au pays où se fait la guerre.” Let me repeat myself: I have never heard it better, from anyone. As good, sure, and different, too. But better, no.

French is a language that suits Garanca, and that she suits in turn. I remember her in Les Nuits d’été, the Berlioz cycle, with the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by her countryman Mariss Jansons.

As long as I’m marching down Memory Lane: I first knew Garanca as a Mozart singer. A performer in Mozart operas. I wish she had done a touch of Mozart on this recital, as a reminder of those bygone days. People tend to sing Mozart and then drop him. That is understandable, given his demands.

Sunday’s recital continued with Rachmaninoff songs: eight of them. Again, a few were famous, such as “Lilacs,” which many of us know as a piano piece (transcribed by the composer himself). But, listening to Garanca’s set, I realized that I have known just a handful of Rachmaninoff songs—through Bjoerling, Gedda, Hvorostovsky, and a few other singers.

Take “I Wait for Thee” (to give the English title), Op. 14, No. 1. If I heard it in the past, I forgot about it. And will not forget again . . .

Russian is another language that suits Garanca (and vice versa). I imagine she grew up speaking it, along with her native Latvian.

At encore time, I wanted to shout out, “‘Habanera’!”—for Garanca is a famous Carmen. I would never, of course. She returned to Brahms, with “Meine Liebe ist grün.” Then she went Schumann, with “Widmung.” Is that the most popular encore for voice recitals in general? No, Strauss’s “Zueignung” is, but “Widmung” is up there.

She said goodbye with a Latvian song. It’s always good to hear people sing in their mother tongues. All told, Garanca sang twenty-eight songs on this afternoon. That’s a lot. But it went by fast. And I wished it had gone on.

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