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Music Review

Christine Brewer falls back on power and proficiency

With pianist Craig Rutenberg injured, Brewer sang another repertoire with Craig Terry accompanying her Saturday. With pianist Craig Rutenberg injured, Brewer sang another repertoire with Craig Terry accompanying her Saturday. (Christian Steiner)
By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / January 18, 2011

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Soprano Christine Brewer was fighting a cold and accommodating a last-minute change of pianist for her Celebrity Series recital on Saturday, necessitating adjustment in the program; her replacement repertoire was Richard Wagner’s “Wesendonck-Lieder.’’ Such a fallback was indicative of both the power and the proficiency on display throughout the evening.

Brewer’s voice is a marvel, huge yet lyrical, shining and bronzed throughout its range (only intermittent effort at the top betrayed a hint of illness). But the voice is also deployed with judicious style. Her “Wesendonck-Lieder’’ were models of skillful Wagnerian navigation, her prodigious vocal reserves sustaining the momentum, keeping the sail of the phrasing taut regardless of speed or dynamic. Her German rapped with authority; nuanced shadings — a hint of melodramatic sob in “Im Treibhaus,’’ an intensifying shimmer in “Schmerzen’’ — flowed effortlessly out of text and line.

After opening with a declamatory rendition of “Divinités du Styx’’ from Gluck’s “Alceste,’’ Brewer followed the Wagner with three songs by Richard Strauss: unleashing gleaming steel for the fierce romance of “Ich liebe dich,’’ drawing an elegant line through “Breit’ über mein Haupt dein schwarzes Haar,’’ finishing with an accomplished reading of “Befreit,’’ the drama ideally parsed, her voice rising again and again to a kind of volcanic bloom.

Lighter fare dominated the second half, both Brewer and pianist Craig Terry (a frequent collaborator, ably filling in for an injured Craig Rutenberg) having evident fun. Benjamin Britten’s “Cabaret Songs’’ brought such extroverted goofing, but also feinted toward the sublime: “Johnny,’’ a tale of heartbreak in which a parade of cheeky stylistic impressions give way to despairing immediacy, was especially fine. John Carter’s 1964 “Cantata’’ on spirituals, a one-time showpiece for Jessye Norman, was an equally grand excuse for Brewer’s full-throated sounds and expansive shapes.

Brewer finished with a dose of charm, a set dubbed “Echoes of Nightingales,’’ encores and occasional songs from the repertoires of Golden Age sopranos: Traubel and Flagstad, Farrell and Steber. Delivered with straightforward opulence, such dollops of sentiment — Idabelle Firestone’s “If I Could Tell You’’ was probably the most nostalgically familiar — were an ideally clever way for Brewer to leverage her own personality, one that hearkens back to those old-school divas: a down-to-earth girl with a whale of a voice.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, Kirsten Flagstad’s nationality was mischaracterized in this review. Flagstad was Norwegian.

CHRISTINE BREWER, soprano

With CRAIG TERRY, piano

Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston

At: Jordan Hall, Saturday