Mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink is that rare kind of singer who seems to sing to each member of an audience in what is like a personal conversation, even if she is singing in German or Czech. Fink debuted Monday night at Union College’s Memorial Chapel as part of the 41st International Festival of Chamber Music.
Her ability to connect so personally marks her as one of the great lieder singers. It was a marvelous recital. Although texts were provided, it almost didn’t seem to matter. Just hearing Fink’s lustrous, big, rich, dark voice with every phrase elegantly finished was enough to sweep everyone into the song’s world. And she did it without gestures — well, maybe a slant of the head from time to time.
Fink wouldn’t have been as successful if she hadn’t had pianist Anthony Spirl. He was empathy itself. He gave her a light touch, spare pedal, precise technique, marvelous sensitivity and tons of room to breathe.
They began with the seven songs from Schumann’s “Lenau-Lieder, Op. 90” (1850). Written when he was 40 — he had six more years to live — they are small masterpieces and rarely sung. Fink caressed the phrases and used her dynamic range like a color. She sang with a sense of capacity. Only on one song did she push to a great volume on top, which was thrilling. Her diction here and throughout the evening was superb.
Three early Mahler songs had piano parts that were more complex but Spirl’s intuitive accompanying made for an excellent partnership. “Frülingsmorgen” was sunny and light. “Das irdische Leben” had interesting harmonic shifts and in “Das himmlische Leben” there were interesting piano interludes between stanzas. The singing was inspired.
Dvorak’s “Five Biblical Songs, Op. 99” (1894) had strong phrases, unusual harmonic shifts, some chromaticism and occasional folk elements. Fink sounded luscious, especially in her edged bottom range, and sang with much passion. The piano part was busier, but her lines floated above them.
Mahler’s five songs from his “Rückert-Lieder” of 1901-02 are hugely challenging. He used the voice as an instrument and put Fink’s range high. Tonal shifts and transitions were quick, and subtleties of inflection were necessary. Fink was especially wonderful in “Um Mitternach” with her full rich range and her voice like a clarion at full volume.
After Fink gave Spirl a hug and a kiss, the crowd got lucky and got one encore: Schumann’s charming “Der Sandmann.”