There was a time when honest-to-goodness lieder recitals were a common thing in the culture capitals of this land. Nowadays, they are very hard to come across indeed.
It was fitting, therefore, that one of the nicest in recent memory should be by an American singer, Arleen Auger, who has established herself in Europe as a leading lyric, lyric/coloratura soprano. Another visitor to New York recently was Hermann Prey, who has been noted for his interpretation of German art songs for much of his illustrious career.
Miss Auger's recital (in Alice Tully Hall) was uncompromising. She chose songs by Mozart, Schumann, Debussy, and Strauss. Mr. Prey's at Carnegie was even more challenging - an all-Brahms evening.
Now, Brahms songs are not the most varied in the world. His plumbing the depths of love songs always sounds more lugubrious than passionate. Rarely does a melody take wing in a song and bathe the listener in beauty. When such a thing happens, it is an event. Not so the songs of Strauss or even of Mozart. The former in particular might appear on first hearing to be virtually all melody; the latter knowingly incorporates bits of melodies into a fabric of wonderful mood painting.
Miss Auger was able not just to sing everything with uncommonly appealing tones. She was able to inhabit each song, make each offering a small dramatic encounter - never arch, never coy, never overwrought. She always employed just the right interpretive touch to get the message across without betraying the basic nature of each song as a drama in miniature. With her accompanist - the redoubtable and always magnificent Dalton Baldwin - Miss Auger offered a vibrant lesson in how to put together and put across an evening of lieder (and chanson) to an attentive audience.
Mr. Prey's challenge was to keep a sympathetic audience altogether happy throughout the often-similar array of songs. There was nary a familiar tune until the encores, where he sang the famous ''Lullaby'' with such exquisite tone , deep yet restrained feeling.
By the time he launched into the ''Four Serious Songs,'' a challenge for any artist, he was projecting masterfully, and after the intermission, the program proceeded on an equally high level. Mr. Prey still has one of the most beautiful German baritone voices around - handsome, rich, pliant.
The Met, meanwhile, offered bass Martticq Talvela in an afternoon of song that never got off the ground. The ultra-tall, burly bass has little presence for the formality of a song recital. The voice lacks the pliancy to fully communicate any sense of the miniaturistic. Even in so blustery and powerful a cycle as Mussorgsky's ''Songs and Dances of Death,'' the singer never did more than vocalize with words. Thus, in spite of James Levine's often masterful piano playing, the afternoon remained conspicuously earthbound. Adriana Maliponte
Adriana Maliponte made two unscheduled appearances as Violetta in the Met's presentation of Verdi's ''La Traviata'' last week. She stepped into a production new to her with no stage rehearsal, and by evening's end she had managed to remind us just how rare and pleasureable it is to encounter a memorable Violetta in this day. In fact, it was the first time that a genuine Italian Violetta - and by that I mean tradition as well as nationality - has been heard at the Met since the last time she sang the role there in '73.
The Italian tradition is rooted in timbre at the service of drama. A beautifully sustained vocal line is important, but nuance, shading, an acute awareness of dynamic variation, and close care for the projection of words - these all meld to create a full portrayal of a heroine.
A long list of singers have assayed Violetta at the Met this past decade. None of them match Miss Maliponte for completeness of histrionic interpretation, for haunting beauty of tone, and for her passionate yet never uncontrolled way with the music and text.