Between performances of Le Nozze di Figaro at the Metropolitan Opera, Golda Schultz headed south for a night to make her recital debut with the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. Greeted by a small but appreciative audience, the South African soprano brought a program of female composers that spanned three centuries, three languages and several continents. The resulting evening brimmed with the same mixture of intelligence and charm that Schultz displayed in extemporaneous remarks – an ideal combination of musical wit and curatorial thought that made for a concert to remember.

Golda Schultz
© Matt Genders

Schultz and her able accompanist Jonathan Ware began with perhaps the best-known selections, a series of Lieder composed by Clara Schumann in early adulthood. Schumann’s legion of admirers often insist that her talents eclipsed those of her husband and their contemporaries. I remain unpersuaded. Her contributions to song literature often sound like polite conservatory pieces, and her musicalizing of Rückert’s Liebst du um Schõnheit, which opened the recital, lacks the haunting dimension that Mahler brought to his later setting of the same poem. Schultz’s interpretive acumen did much to add character to this music. Free with rubato, she brought a speculative quality to the opening song and a youthful insouciance to Warum willst du and’re fragen. Her bell-clear German diction throughout could convince a native speaker. Ware, an intuitive and sensitive partner, relished postludes and flourishes of pianistic flash without drawing too much of the spotlight.

The shanty-like art songs of Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) proved a complete stylistic contrast, which Schultz met with just as much relish. She brought heart-thumping vigor to the text of William Blake’s oft-adapted The Tyger and a chilling narrative focus to The Seal Man, which required sustained pitches and tricky passages of Sprechgesang that were handled effortlessly. These selections allowed Schultz also to display a refulgent lower register underutilized in the light lyric roles that have been her calling cards on the opera stage. Between Schumann and Clarke, the program turned its attention to Emilie Mayer (1812-1883), although the choice to include her renditions of Du bist wie eine Blume and Erlkõnig may be questionable. Pleasant enough, they did not banish memories of the more celebrated Lieder that share these texts.

The lush, Impressionistic musical world of Nadia Boulanger complemented Schultz’s mellow tone, although her French was more noticeably accented than her German or English. The lovely Cantique, after Maeterlinck, emerged in hazy wisps of sound, and the entire set gave the appropriate salon-like effect. The performance ended with the American live premiere of Kathleen Tagg’s This be her verse, with the composer, a fellow South African, in attendance. Tagg and lyricist Lila Palmer crafted the three-song cycle in consultation with Schultz, who interpreted the work with a sovereign sense of ownership. Some of the musical directives Tagg gave to Ware seemed overly fussy – plucking piano strings and laying a chain for a song called Wedding, a rather heavy-handed metaphor. The effect of a celesta that Schultz mentioned came across instead like a modern-day synthesizer. Still, Schultz summoned a vivacious spirit that matched Tagg’s intentions, particularly in a song called Single Bed that celebrates radical self-reliance.

Schultz offered Amy Beach’s I Send My Heart Up to Thee as an encore, and Robert Browning’s simple verse encapsulated the whole event with beautiful clarity: “I send my heart up to thee, all my heart / In this my singing.”