March 3, 2014
The Boston Musical Intelligencer — Neubauer Trio Well Frothed

Like a generously filled éclair or a well frothed cappuccino, this was a conglomeration of tidbits and unusual arrangements put together in a salon concert style to entice and delight. On paper, it read like an entire concert of encores with a few familiar standards thrown in. The trio entered informally, waving to the crowd packed into the four-tiered Calderwood Hall. Violist Paul Neubauer began with a knowing smile as he whistled the first few notes of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.” Pianist Ann-Marie McDermott soon joined in with the tune and Neubauer then began a little gigue of an obbligato reminiscent of the piccolo solo in “Stars and Stripes.” Soprano Susanna Phillips began the first verse as he continued his gigue, and when the second verse came around he surprised us all by singing it himself in his throaty bari-tenor. This completely won over any of those who were not so keen on an afternoon of fluff versus substance, and set the tone for the next hour and a half. This little ditty was followed by a beautiful lullaby, “Sing me to Sleep” of Edwin Greene. Neubauer’s sound was sexy and beckoning; it would be Heaven just to have him lullaby one to sleep every evening. From the beginning, he established himself as a big personality, even in this understated opening. His lines were long, drawn and hushed, spinning a beautiful sound for Phillips to sing with. This was early on one of her best songs on the program. Her instrument is luminescent and feminine, and she crooned in the same drawn-out long lines as the viola. The stillness was mesmerizing, making for great hopes for this afternoon delight of a program. “Roses of Picardy” closed the set.

Neubauer then announced a change in the program. Originally, the Schumann set had two “Widmungs,” the original voice-piano setting and the Liszt piano transcription, separated by a viola piece from Märchenbilder. Instead, the two “Widmungs” would come together, as a comparison, etc. He also mentioned that the program was constructed as a nod to how record companies once introduced new recordings with gala assortments of their artists: They would record and tour unusual combinations of people which he named as perhaps, Marian Anderson, John McCormack and even Bing Crosby paired with the likes of Fritz Kreisler, Jascha Heifetz and other unlikely combinations. He said that in some cases these were the exact arrangements. Indeed, the program carried on in this fashion with various program notes being filled in by the artists themselves. I felt the true diva moment was McDermott’s brilliant playing of the Liszt transcription. Through her fluid technique and flowing musicianship, the piece literally spilled out of the uncovered 9-foot Steinway.

October 16, 2013
The Plain Dealer - Soprano Susanna Phillips defies convention with enchanting program of songs with viola

Forget convention. Soprano Susanna Phillips can do whatever she wants. If she wants to sing with viola in addition to piano, that’s her prerogative.

Besides, as her recital Tuesday at Plymouth Church in Shaker Heights made beautifully clear, the combination makes perfect sense. Performing with violist Paul Neubauer of the Cleveland Chamber Music Society, Phillips made the two seem destined for each other, and set a precedent for others to follow.

But it wasn’t just the lineup, which included the remarkable pianist Anne-Marie McDermott, that made the evening so special. Also unique was the repertoire itself, a fetching blend of art and parlor songs from all over 19th- and 20th-century Europe.

Phillips herself required zero assistance. A singer known for starring roles at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, she proved a singular authority, brandishing a golden, powerful instrument and treating each song to generous servings of eloquence and feeling.

But how much better to hear Phillips in tandem with Neubauer, a former principal violist of the New York Philharmonic, and witness the gorgeous dovetailing of the viola’s warm, expressive tone with that of the human voice, its closest musical relation. At times, the two were almost indistinguishable.

Unfamiliar names abounded on a well-stocked program organized by nationality. Nostalgic love songs and soothing lullabies by the likes of Harry Williams and Haydn Wood rubbed shoulders with swooning, quasi-operatic pieces by Angelo Mascheroni and Franceso Paolo Tosti. As an encore, Phillips offered a luxurious rendition of Gershwin’s “Love is Here to Stay.”

But the soprano was also perfectly at ease in Russian and French, singing a diverse, evocative trio of songs by Rachmaninoff, Arensky’s wistful “Lily in the Valley,” and two sumptuous delights by Gounoud, one of which constituted the night’s only work originally composed for voice, viola and piano.

Throughout, Phillips and her colleagues displayed flawless sensitivity. For as often as the singer locked eyes with the audience, she also checked in with her colleagues, taking care to mimic their timing and phrasing.

Rounding out the evening in lovely fashion were two instrumental works by Schumann. “Marchenbilder,” four character pieces for viola and piano based on fairy tales, revealed Neubauer and McDermott to be artists capable of exquisite nuance. Later, a pairing of the song “Widmung” (“Dedication”) with a transcription for solo piano by Liszt proved equally captivating, as McDermott’s performance retained all the original’s emotionality and florid lyricism.

Phillips had listeners in the palm of her hand throughout. One song in particular, however, Gaetano Braga’s “Angel’s Serenade,” was especially mesmerizing and apt to the occasion. In a scene depicting a young girl hearing otherworldly sounds, the soprano described what the audience itself was essentially experiencing: music not of mortal nature.

October 18, 2013 - Cleveland Chamber Music Society: Susanna Phillips delights in art songs of another era

Susanna Phillips is on a roll: she recently starred at the Metropolitan Opera as Fiordiligi in Mozart’s Così fan tutte, as part of conductor James Levine’s anxiously awaited return to conducting at the Met, and on New Year’s Eve upcoming she will star as Rosalinde in a new production of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. This past Monday evening, October 15, she presented a most unusual, but highly enjoyable, concert with collaborators Anne-Marie McDermott, piano, and Paul Neubauer, viola, as the first concert of the Cleveland Chamber Music Society’s 2013/14 season, at Plymouth Church of Shaker Heights.

The concert was unusual in a couple of ways. First, the pairing of soprano and viola is not commonly heard, but proved to be felicitous. Second, Ms. Phillips and friends performed a program of mostly “light” music – songs of an earlier era, intended to please and entertain and not stress the listener. Only one of the numbers was originally written for voice, viola and piano (more on that later). Most of the violaobbligati were found or devised by Mr. Neubauer, who is acclaimed in his own right as an orchestral musician and soloist. Mr. Neubauer and Ms. McDermott both had their opportunities to shine as soloists during the course of the evening.

The concert opened with Harry Williams’s World War I hit “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.” Mr. Neubauer not only played a spritely countermelody, he also got to sing a verse or two. Edwin Greene’s touching lullaby/waltz “Sing Me to Sleep” of 1902 (but also popular during World War I) was made famous by early recording stars soprano Alma Gluck and her husband, violinst Efrem Zimbalist. The third song of the opening set was another WWI favorite, “Roses of Picardy.” There might have been high camp possibilities with these songs, but Ms. Phillips and her collaborators took them at face value and performed them with sincerity. Ms. Phillips has a clear lyric soprano voice, even from the bottom to the top of her range, but with plenty of sound that filled the church (and likely the vast spaces of the Metropolitan Opera house.)

Robert Schumann’s four character pieces, Märchenbilder (Fairy Tale Pictures), op. 113, for viola and piano, followed. Two of the movements are said to depict Rapunzel, the third, Rumpelstiltskin, and the fourth, Sleeping Beauty. These pieces are not trifles, however, and Mr. Neubauer and Ms. McDermott gave them sensitive readings, emphasizing the interplay between the viola and piano. This was collaborative music-making at its best.

Ms. Phillips returned for four Russian songs by Sergei Rachmaninoff and Anton Arensky. (Although these songs might have been sung as part of early twentieth-century salon music concerts, it is likely that they would have been performed in English or German translation. Ms. Phillips opted for the original Russian.) Rachmaninoff’s “Ne poy, krasavitsa, pri mne” (“Do not sing, my beauty, to me”) was intense and dramatic, and showed Ms. Phillips’s skill at floating soft high notes. Arensky’s song “Lándysh” (“Lily-in-the-valley”) was notable for the author of its text: Piotr Ilich Tchaikovsky. Two more Rachmaninoff songs completed the first half of the program. The second, “Vesennye vody” (“Spring waters”) featured a virtuoso accompaniment depicting the flowing mountain streams and the coming of Spring depicted in the text. Here, as elsewhere in the concert, Ms. Phillips seemed genuinely to be enjoying herself during her performance. She smiled at the audience, and all three of the performers at one point or another gave remarks about the music being performed.

The second half of the program began with two songs by Charles Gounod: his arrangement of Bach’s C major Well-tempered Clavierprelude fashioned into an accompaniment for the Ave Maria text. A first stanza was played as a viola solo with piano, followed by Ms. Phillips on the text with an obbligato by Mr. Neubauer. Ms. Phillips voice gleamed at the high note climax of the piece. Who would have thought that such a tired old warhorse could be given fresh new life? The second Gounod work was a rarity (and, as mentioned above, the only song originally for soprano, viola and piano): “Evening Song,” whose text in English by Adelaide Anne Proctor was set by Gounod during a sojourn in London. Mr. Neubauer described his saga of trying to track down the music score of the song, going to great lengths to search high and low, only to find it hiding more or less in plain sight in the Lincoln Center Library, only a few steps from where he teaches at the Juilliard School. It was, in fact, pretty, but inconsequential.

Schumann’s song “Widmung” (“Dedication”) was followed by Franz Liszt’s solo piano transcription of the song. Ms. McDermott’s intense performance had just the right combination of virtuosity and sensitivity to the original song.

The remainder of the program was devoted to popular Italian songs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The songs, by Tosti, Cesareo, Mazzoni, Marcello and de Curtis, are perhaps more familiarly sung by men’s voices, but Ms. Phillips made them convincing. Not timeless masterpieces, perhaps, but their heart-on-sleeve emotions and the imaginative accompaniments are hard to resist, especially the “strumming” piano part in Cesareo’s “La serenata” and the streaming barcarolle-like “La Serenata” by Marco Marcelliano Marcello.

As an encore, Ms. Phillips and company returned for a stylishly jazzy rendition of George and Ira Gershwin’s classic “Our Love Is Here to Stay.”

October 8, 2013
Richmond Times-Dispatch - ‘Songs for Soprano’

Ever been to a chamber concert that began with a performer whistling “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”? Well, neither had I until violist Paul Neubauer, pianist Anne-Marie McDermott and soprano Susanna Phillips strode onstage Sunday evening at the University of Richmond’s Camp Concert Hall. Neubauer, with a smile, pursed his lips and launched into that popular World War I tune. It set the tone perfectly for a lighthearted and charming, yet often dramatic, evening of world-class music making.

The program was titled “Songs for Soprano,” but it was really a performance that showcased the talents of all three of these fine musicians. Although they’re all highly acclaimed solo performers who’ve appeared on stages throughout the world, they’ve also performed this repertoire of salon-style songs together on numerous occasions — and it showed in their refined sense of ensemble and unity of artistic vision.

They started with a set of well-known songs from the British Isles circa 1902-1916. Through this set and throughout the evening, Phillips exhibited a strong yet flexible and warm lyric soprano, Neubauer showed expressive and effortless obbligato playing, and McDermott demonstrated the ultimate accompanist’s sensibility in controlling her dynamics, never overpowering the others even with the lid of the Steinway grand fully open.

A particular high spot in the first half was McDermott’s and Neubauer’s rendition of Robert Schumann’s “Märchenbilder” (“Pictures from a Fairy Land”) for piano and viola. Although ostensibly written to be performed by amateurs at home, this four-movement piece, sometimes sonorously sad, sometimes frenetic and extroverted, is technically formidable. It takes players of the caliber of McDermott and Neubauer to bring it off, which they did masterfully.

Phillips then rejoined the other two for a set of songs from Russia, three by Sergei Rachmaninoff — the melancholy “Oh, Cease Thy Singing, Maiden Fair,” the short gem “How Fair This Spot!” and the turbulent “Spring Waters” — and one by Anton Arensky, the sweet “Das Maiglöckchen” (“Lily of the Valley”).

The second half began with the “Ave Maria” by J.S. Bach/Charles Gounod. Unfortunately, this was the weakest showing for Phillips, whose middle register tended to be a shade under the pitch in some passages. She can be forgiven, however, having sung the role of Fiordiligi in Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” at the Metropolitan Opera the night before. And she acquitted herself nicely in two other songs by Gounod, especially showing off her coloratura skills in “Sing, Smile and Slumber.”

The evening highlight was “Widmung” (“Dedication”) for voice and piano by Robert Schumann, coupled with Franz Liszt’s transcription of the same piece for solo piano. Phillip’s passionate rendering of the text by Friederich Rückert was splendid, and McDermott had her own shining moment as her stunning virtuosity exploded in the all-too-brief Liszt transcription.