Elina Garanča can always be counted on for a coolly polished performance. Her silvery mezzo is beautiful, even throughout her range, and impeccably on pitch. She is musically tasteful, and her sound has grown in recent years. But something often seems to be missing. While she’s too accomplished to call bland, her performances rarely show evidence of a beating heart. On Saturday night, her Carnegie Hall recital debut kept in character, showing an excellent singer rather than an effective communicator.

Elina Garanca © Karina Schwarz / DG
Elina Garanca
© Karina Schwarz / DG

Her program of Lieder by Schumann, Berg, and Strauss did feature impeccable German diction. Unlike many Germanic singers, though, she is a highly visual recitalist, illustrating with a variety of facial expressions and hand gestures. Unfortunately, her hands and face seemed to be doing expressive work that her singing couldn’t quite manage. While always reasonably attentive to the meaning of the text, her singing’s emotional palette rarely surpassed the generalized, and her only intense moments came through sheer vocal force. Pianist Kevin Murphy provided solid and finely-drawn playing, but he and Garanča did not seem to have a particularly close rapport.

Nonetheless, this was classy singing, vocally generous and precise. The Schumann set began with a rather restrained “Widmung”, which was followed by an ethereally floated “Der Nussbaum”. Soon enough she moved on to many a female recitalist’s favorite song cycle, Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben. Perhaps it was to Garanča’s advantage that this cycle never delves as deeply as Dichterliebe, and its images of domesticity tend towards the clichéd; the narrator’s journey from love to marriage to motherhood to grief never goes beyond the 19th century’s most conventional and regulated models of femininity. But the music is more subtle than the text, and a more creative interpreter could have found something closer to a real woman than Garanča did.

It was in the first half of the second half, in Berg’s Sieben frühe Lieder (“Seven Early Songs”) that Garanča did her best work of the evening. These songs are naturally more dramatic than Schumann’s, tonal but fairly chromatic, their vocal lines taking headlong leaps into the upper range. Garanča navigated the dense music with placid ease, and impressive volume and ease on the high notes.

The final Strauss set fell a little bit flat. (The program, for what it’s worth, printed the wrong text for the first song – making the easy mistake of printing the Christian Morgenstern text of “Leise Lieder” Op. 41 no. 5, while Garanca sang “Leises Lied”, Op. 39 no. 1, set to Richard Dehmel.) While Garanča has plenty of voice for Strauss’ operatic phrases, it all seemed a little too detached, insufficiently impassioned. She used some solid chest voice in “Allerseelen”, but the playful and flirty character of “All’ mein Gedanken” eluded her. The final song, “Heimliche Aufforderung”, seemed a poor choice, its triumphant arpeggios demanding something with somewhat more trumpeting heft and perhaps less ease.

In the first of her brief encores, Brahms’ “Mein Liebe ist grün” Op. 63 no. 5, she was no less poised than elsewhere. The second, a Latvian song she identified as translating as “Close Your Eyes and Smile”, she found a charming simplicity that might have served her better in other parts of the program. While lovers of fine singing probably found much to enjoy in Garanča’s vocalism, as Lieder singing it was impeccable to a fault.