June 27, 2006
New York Times

“The Free for All Concert Series Closes With Works by Falla, Granados and Others” by Allan Kozinn

Erik Jacobs/The New York Times
The guitarist Sharon Isbin, left, and Susanne Mentzer, a mezzo-soprano, performed in a joint recital.

Joint recitals by singers and guitarists are a good deal all around. For the guitarist they afford some comparatively rare collaborative work, and move him or her at least a few paces from the standard repertory. For the singers, too, the repertory can be novel, but the real change is more elemental.

When they are accompanied by an instrument with as gentle a voice and as subtle a palette as the guitar, they don’t have to summon the same weight and force they bring to a program with a piano.

Susanne Mentzer, the mezzo-soprano, and Sharon Isbin, the guitarist, collaborate periodically in recitals and on recordings. On Sunday afternoon they joined forces to close this season’s Free for All series of free concerts at Town Hall.

The repertory was mainly a tour of the great early-20th-century Spanish composers, the sole exception being Leo Brouwer, a contemporary Cuban composer, whose “Black Decameron” (1981) Ms. Isbin played in one of her solo sets.

Ms. Mentzer is an engaging singer, and she sang a group of Granados’s “Tonadillas” and Falla’s “Canciones Populares Españolas,” with ample gradations of emotion and character, yet all within a believable haze of Mediterranean sultriness. Ms. Isbin contributed to that atmosphere with her precise, gracefully shaped readings of the guitar lines, which, in the Falla group particularly, draw fully on the vital folkloric roots of Spanish art song.

Ms. Mentzer and Ms. Isbin also offered a set of “Canciones Españolas Antiguas” by the poet and sometime composer Federico García Lorca. These don’t have quite as bright an original musical spark as the Falla and Granados pieces, but they share the accent and rhythms of the distinctly Spanish style.

They closed the program with “Aranjuez, Ma Pensée,” Rodrigo’s reworking of the slow movement from his “Concierto de Aranjuez,” with a nostalgic French text.

Between the vocal works, Ms. Isbin gave virtuosic performances of a handful of solo works, including Granados’s Spanish Dance No. 5; Tárrega’s exquisitely melancholy tremolo study, “Recuerdos de la Alhambra”; and Albéniz’s flamenco-tinged “Asturias.”

The Brouwer work, Ms. Isbin’s final solo selection, isn’t as famous as these, but it is certainly as vivid: its melodies show their Spanish DNA clearly enough, but Mr. Brouwer’s striking chromaticism and his use of Afro-Cuban rhythms set this three-movement work apart from the Old World antiquity of the other pieces.

©2006 New York Times

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