Houtzeel Charms and Seduces in New Recital

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NOSTALGIA / GINASTERA: Canción al arbol del olvido; Triste. IVES: Songs My Mother Taught Me; Down East; Ann Street; The Housatonic at Stockbridge; The Indians; Tom Sails Away. MAHLER: Rheinlegendchen; Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft!; Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit; Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer; Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen. BUCHARDO: Prendiditos de la mano. GUASTAVINO: Encantamiento; Pampamapa. PIAZZOLA: Los parjaros perdidos / Stephanie Houtzeel, mezzo-soprano; Charles Spencer, piano / Capriccio C5262

Here’s a perfect example of the kind of convoluted idiocy with which record companies promote classical artists nowadays:

‘I am neither an Athenian, nor a Greek, but a citizen of the world’, Socrates is said to have uttered. He described himself as a cosmopolitan…who wanted to annul the dichotomy between being a polis member and a polis non-member by positioning himself in the overarching order of the cosmos. Along these lines, the mezzo-soprano Stephanie Houtzeel may, of course, describe herself as a cosmopolitan. Born in Kassel, she was raised in the vicinity of Boston, where she initially studied political science and French, then music at the New England Conservatory and the Juillard School in New York (she was the first winner of Juilliard’s Vocal Arts Debut Award). Since the autumn of 2010, she has been a member of the ensemble of the Vienna State Opera. So, the dramaturgically meticulously composed programme of her first recital should be viewed as being cosmopolitan. It is a journey through three stations, three world metropolises, Vienna, New York and Buenos Aires.

Translation: she has a dual background, actually triple since the region of Germany she came from is in the “Nord Holland” area, which explains her Dutch-sounding last name, and since she sings in Vienna that makes her a “triple citizen of the world.” This nonsense about positioning one’s self “in the overarching order of the cosmos” is a lot of hooey. The most important thing about this recording is that Houtzeel is a fabulous singer who communicates on each and every number.

Nothing she sings is perfunctory. She has the ability, rare among modern-day singers (because it is a skill most of them are not taught and do not cultivate), of coloring her tones, meaning that she uses very specific sounds on different words and different notes. Once in a while I felt that she tended to color her tones a bit too much in the direction of sadness, as if she were singing about death when she wasn’t, but for the most part I was absolutely enraptured by her approach. She is an artist, not just a Voice, and heaven knows we need more and more like her in the world.

Moreover, her program is interesting and diverse. Only a few of these songs, such as Ives’ Ann Street and The Housatonic at Stockbridge and Mahler’s Des knaben Wunderhorn and Songs of a Wayfarer excerpts, are really familiar to most concert-goers. Otherwise, she chose her program well, stocking it with some very interesting music by Ginastera, Carlos López Buchardo and Carlos Gustavino—and much to my surprise, her singing of some of these songs (i.e., Gustavino’s Pampamapa) has exactly the right style and accent. My lone complaint of Houtzeel is that neither her Spanish nor her English diction is really fine; she swallows too many consonants and is not crisp enough in enunciation. I find this puzzling, particularly her English singing, since she was raised near Boston, but as my regular readers know this is not a rare complaint among modern-day singers regardless of their country of origin.

In some of these songs pianist Spencer seems content to act as an impartial observer, but in those which call for emotional involvement, such as Mahler’s Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer from his Songs of a Wayfarer, he is very much involved in the emotional projection of the work. The sound of the recording, however, is rather strange: the voice seems to be in a discrete, reverberant space while the piano is aparently miked quite differently, up close and personal with a very dry sound. Happily, the ear eventually adjusts to this. The important thing is the involvement and the delivery of emotion, allied with first-rate musicianship, and Holtzeel has this in spades. One of the more interesting aspects of her performance is her approach to the Ives songs. Although she sings them as written, both she and Spencer take a lyrical approach to them, which takes the edge off their modern “spikiness.” Interestingly, for those who have heard Ives’ own recordings of his music, this is the way he played it himself—thus, Houtzeel’s approach may be said to be “historically correct.”

The bottom line is that the entire recital is mesmerizing and holds your attention from first note to last. Strictly as a voice, Houtzeel has a perfectly centered tone with perfect control from the top to the bottom of her registers, yet in the end it is not necessarily her timbre you recall as the way she uses the voice. Occasionally she drains it of vibrato to make a particular note or passage sound more haunting, but for the most part she employs a rich but perfectly controlled vibrato of alluring loveliness. It is not at all what we sometimes unkindly refer to as a “cookie cutter” voice, but one you will hear over again in your dreams once you listen to her. If I had to single out one track for supremacy on this superb album, it would probably be Ginastera’s Triste. This is singing on an extraordinarily high level of accomplishment, her voice spun out with such incredible control that one holds one’s breath, waiting for the spell to break. It never does.

Houtzeel is a sorceress who holds you in the palm of her hand and doesn’t let go until the final note has died away. This is on my very short list of best new releases for this year so far.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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