Suffering from a cough and swallowing some words, Ms. Kirchschlager succeeded more in gesture than details. Breezing through Brahms’ songs “Meine liebe ist grün,” “Über die Heide,” and “Salome,” faux-naïve songs with thick, Schumannesque accompaniments, Kirchschlager often dropped consonants and clipped the ends of phrases.
Her lower register sometimes disappeared (working against her was Alice Tully Hall’s post-renovation acoustic, which is inhospitably live and bright) and in “Versunken” (Drowned) there was unintentionally irony when her final low tone failed to rise through the dense piano writing. Her “Nachtwandler” was cleaner and better elocuted, and she settled convincingly into the peacefully dusky “Dämm’rung senkt sich von Oben.”
On the Wolf Lieder, all with Mörike texts, she lavished more fond attention. Her affection for songs like “Auf einer Wanderung”, “Auf ein altes Bild,” and “Um Mitternacht” showed, and Wolf’s louder passages helped her upper register to shine with operatic, rounded nobility. “Begegnung” succeeded in its clever drama between the voice and piano accompaniment, ending with both the pianist’s hands scampering in chromatic contrary motion. The odd “Zur Warnung” is a kind of operatic scena, with experimental recitatives and melodramatic touches. It demands a candid narrator, and Ms. Kirchschlager summoned a kitchy theatricality to sell the piece. “Er ist’s,” ending the set, showcased her attractive upper register and rhythmic vigor – a moment of musical redemption.
Reynaldo Hahn’s “Le souvenir d’avoir chanté” and “Seule” are French parlour songs of a wan, sentimental sort, and they didn’t hold enough interest to draw attention away from Ms. Kirchschlager’s uneven, unsteady singing. The same was true in the Handelian “A chloris,” marred by a hooting, weighty quality. “Quand je fus pris au pavillon” and “L’heure exquise” are more crafty pieces, with delicate accompaniments that leave the singer exposed in the bottom of her range. Ms. Kirchschalger had poise and purpose, drawing listeners into the music’s unique and poetic stillness, as in “La chère blessure,” a more impassioned work which allowed her voice to expand in the room.
The tessitura of Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs are a better fit for her high mezzo soprano. Pianist Warren Jones shadowed her with exceptional tact through the long melismas in “Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht,” which floated expansively and landed gently. The folksy naiveté present in “Verlor’ne Müh!” and “Rheinlegendchen,” if somewhat redundant, was delivered with spunky irony, to the delight of her audience. Nestled between these romantic comedies were “Das irdische Leben,” a heart-wrenching nightmare of mother’s grief, and “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen,” a long and obtuse metaphysical love song, offered ploddingly and without strong insights.
In an awkward turn, she finished the oddly mismatched program with “Lob des hohen Verstandes.” Mahler’s songs intentionally mix high and low, the crude and heavenly. But ending with the whimsical tale of a donkey adjudicating a song contest between a cuckoo and nightingale elevated childish barnyard sounds (hee haw!) to a place of unlikely artistic purpose. At least she bade farewell to this grateful audience on a cheerful note.