If you needed to define the essence of romanticism in music, you could do worse than point to the opening song in Robert Schumann’s “Dichterliebe” (“Poet’s Love”) cycle.
Delicate and achingly beautiful, “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai” set a headily poetic atmosphere at the outset of Wednesday evening’s Source Song Festival recital by American tenor David Portillo.
Portillo is a recent Twin Cities transplant, and this was his debut recital in Minneapolis. It was also his first “Dichterliebe,” and he unraveled an interpretation already full of insight and individual temperament.
The 16 songs of “Dichterliebe” dissect the joys and fragilities of love, in music that veers from wild excitability to wounded introspection.
It is all too easy for the soloist to slip into a self-pitying wimpishness that alienates the listener’s sympathy. But that was never a danger in Portillo’s virile, dignified traversal of the poet Heinrich Heine’s wryly ironic lyrics.
The heartache of “Wenn ich in deine Augen seh” was palpable but quietly stoic. “Ich will meine Seele tauchen” fluttered with sensitivity, but Portillo skillfully stopped short of being soppily narcissistic.
The piano part in “Dichterliebe” is a story in itself, adding significant psychological information about the lovestruck singer. Olivier Godin played it with acute perception. His tweaking of rhythms in “Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen” brilliantly suggested the instability underlying the singer’s traumatic vision of his true love marrying another.
And in the achingly beautiful coda to the final song, “Die alten, bösen Lieder,” Godin conjured a poignant sense of the pain that lingers when a love goes wrong, and consolation seems impossible.
Portillo’s supple, expressive lyric tenor suited “Dichterliebe” well. But his voice appeared to warm and fill out further after intermission, in an ardent account of Liszt’s Three Petrarch Sonnets.
Portillo is a seasoned operatic performer, and sang twice at New York’s Metropolitan Opera last season. That experience surfaced in the soaring Italianate melodies of the Liszt settings, where a succession of perfectly pitched high notes shot thrillingly across the auditorium.
Four songs by Francis Poulenc showcased the nimbleness of Portillo’s voice in the skittish, scampering “Hyde Park,” and his ability to plumb deeper emotions in “Bleuet,” where the atrocities of wartime cast a grim shadow.
“La rosa y el sauce” and “Pampamapa,” two songs in a lighter folk idiom by the Argentine composer Carlos Guastavino, brought the recital to a pleasingly benign conclusion. They added a fourth language to the German, Italian and French that Portillo had utilized during the evening, and the projection of texts and translations on a screen at stage right was a useful aid to comprehension.
This is the Source Song Festival’s fifth year of operation, and the first time it has used the new performance hall at Westminster Presbyterian Church in downtown Minneapolis for its recitals. The mellow, wood-lined space has excellent acoustics, and proved a natural setting for an art-song recital. Let’s hope the collaboration between Source and Westminster can extend into future seasons.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.