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S & H Recital Review

Schubert , Vaughan Williams, Quilter, Copland, Heggie, Davies: Bryn Terfel, Malcolm Martineau, Barbican, Sunday January 13th. (M.E.)


 

A packed house, and an audience prepared to adore him no matter what he sang, greeted Bryn Terfel on Sunday, in the latest of the Barbican's Celebrity Recitals. Terfel is on record as saying that he doesn't need intellect to be a barrier for music, he just wants to have fun. Well, both he and his audience certainly had fun last night, and although no music critic could possibly pretend that his Schubert (except for the first encore) would pass muster at, say, the Schubertiade or the Wigmore Hall, his varied, quite ambitious programme gave much genuine musical pleasure, not least from the superb playing of Malcolm Martineau.

The opening Schubert group, all settings of Goethe, combined exuberance with introspection, and Terfel presented both moods with varying degrees of success. He opened, uncompromisingly, with "An Schwager Kronos" - the last time I heard this song in performance was by Thomas Quasthoff at the Schubertiade; he sang it, not in opening but in closing his programme, and it seems to me far more appropriate for that; welcoming gates do open at the end of the song, but they are the gates of hell! It's a tempestuous, arrogant piece in which Schubert's inspired setting echoes the poet's restlessness and swagger. The piano part is hugely challenging, and Martineau rose to it brilliantly, those staccato quavers at the beginning urging the singer onward, and the arpeggios in the final section, harmony changing in almost every bar, were tossed off in a way that made you want to stand up and cheer, which the audience more or less did, but not, I think, for the playing. Terfel sang it well, with musical phrasing and even tone, but, as in all of this group, it was not Schubert singing of the highest order. To compare him with Quasthoff is to set him alongside the very best, but that is, surely, where he belongs, and the younger man's performance here could not hold a candle to the German bass-baritone's superb colouring of the words and highly dramatic impersonation.

"Heidenröslein" and "Der Musensohn" followed, in winning performances which were just a little short on subtle vocal colour and a little too long on winsome emphasis; he presents the former as a comic little interlude and the latter, more convincingly, as a joyful, youthful romp, whilst not neglecting the poignancy of the final stanza. It was a great pity that several latecomers were allowed in after this song, since the disturbance at such a point clearly threw the singer, who made uncharacteristic mistakes in "Wandrers Nachtlied" and was unable to sustain the required mood of breathless calm. Surely it should be drummed into the hall's staff that they are only to admit latecomers at a suitable time, such as the pause between groups, and not in the middle of a set? Or was it the case, that these arrogant members of the audience simply did not know how these things should be run, and made themselves difficult at the door? Certainly, much of the house seemed to be composed of people who would not know Schubert from Schoenberg (or Shinola, for that matter) but at least the majority were silent during the actual singing.

"Geheimes" is one of my favourite Schubert songs, and here both singer and pianist were equal to its subtle demands. It presents perhaps more of a challenge to pianist than singer, in that the former must hold his nerve for so many rests and so much sighing in the phrases, as well as maintain an exceptional level of sensitivity of touch, and Martineau's playing was perfection. The singing was exceptionally delicate, too, whilst managing to avoid archness, although it did not quite convey that characteristic Schubertian hesitancy as captivatingly as Ainsley does on the Hyperion recording.

"Erlkönig" brought this group to a close, in a stirring performance which was again remarkable for the accompaniment; I don't think I have ever heard those challenging octaves depicting the galloping horse's hooves, played with such dramatic power and sense of virtuosic ease. Terfel used his operatic powers of characterisation to some effect, especially in the child's anguished cries, but he did not move me throughout; it may seem churlish to use the same comparison again, but when Quasthoff sang this at Schwarzenberg, you shivered at the uncanny eeriness of his malevolent Spirit, and marvelled at his other impersonations. Individual words, too, were treated differently - whereas Terfel obviously knew that "grausets" and "ächzende" are words worthy of stress, he did not quite seem to know why or how, so they came out as generally plucked from their lines, whereas Quasthoff made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up with the way he uttered them; at his "grausets," I clearly recall shuddering myself.

The remainder of the programme showed Terfel in a much better light, increasingly so as the evening went on. Vaughan Williams' "Songs of Travel" are perfect for this singer, with his open communication, his robust style and frank treatment of sentimental passages, and his performance of them came as close to the heart's desire as can be imagined. "Let beauty awake" was an object lesson in the singing (and playing) of English Song; the shapely lines were phrased with unaffected grace, and the touching final line "To render again and receive" was moving in its sense of wonder and tenderness. This cycle has often been seen as a kind of English "Winterreise," and Terfel was successful in bringing out some of the echoes of that great work, especially in the wonderful "The infinite shining heavens" where the wanderer experiences a brief moment of illumination in his travels; the singing of the lines "Till lo! I looked in the dusk / And a star had come down to me." provided one of those rare time-stands-still moments. Beautiful, beautiful singing.

The second half opened with two short but highly evocative sets, three Shakespeare songs by Quilter and three of Copland's "Old American Songs" and you could hardly ask for greater contrasts than those provided here - Quilter's finesse and Copland's earthiness, Shakespeare's melancholy, bittersweet texts and the vernacular lilt of the traditional lyrics which Copland set. The Quilter songs were finely sung and characterised, especially the poignant "O mistress mine," and Terfel clearly relished the American songs, singing with that ".certain purity in the presentation of the vocal line" which the composer desired.

The evening's major work was the U.K. premiere of Jake Heggie's "The Moon is a Mirror", written for Terfel and indeed expanded from three songs to five at his instigation. Heggie is composer in residence at San Francisco Opera, and his debut opera, "Dead Man Walking", was a great success. He is clearly a singers' composer; previous collaborators have included Frederica von Stade and Renee Fleming, and his style is immediately accessible, being lyrical, tuneful and sensitive to language. The cycle is composed of five poems by Vachel Lindsay, all reflections on the moon from different points of view, with each character, as the composer says, projecting "his heart's desire onto the moon" and expressing "the full gamut of human emotions."

Heggie wanted to make each song a small piece of theatre, and in doing so to give Terfel a vehicle for his larger - than - life style; in this he succeeds triumphantly, and it is even more remarkable that this present-day work is so instantly recognisable to such a mixed audience. Musically, the interpretation of the poems is straightforward, with the words set as naturalistically as possible, even in the poem about the old horse, and the piano and voice parts are beautifully paired. The most obvious comparison, to me, was the music of Peter Warlock, and it was refreshing to hear a young composer achieving the same kind of intimacy with language which was Warlock's trademark. Terfel wanted the final song to be a "top-hat-and tails" character, and "What the snow man said" certainly provided a vehicle for that part of his persona, whilst movingly suggesting the pathos behind Lindsay's lines "Proclaiming Christmas all the time / And the glory of the snow!"

A selection of Welsh Folk Songs, arranged by Bryan Davies, brought the scheduled part of the recital to a close. Orwell described the Welsh language as capable of expressing "every emotion known to man," and these traditional lyrics were bound to bring out the best in this very Welsh singer. "My Little Welsh Home," composed in 1921 by the Eisteddfod director W.S. Gwynn Williams, is the sort of thing that you either love or loathe; oozing with sentiment and nostalgia, it is bound to call forth tears from the susceptible and scoffs from the cynical, amongst which latter I would number myself, were it not for the fact that I did actually find his singing of it very engaging. About "Ar Lan y Môr, however, there can be no debate; this is simply one of the most lovely pieces in the whole song repertoire, capable of engaging listeners of every level of sophistication, and lying so beautifully for the voice that it is surprising that more non - Welsh baritones do not give it a try. Call me an old softie, but I found Terfel's singing of the lines "Ar lan y môr mae 'nghariad inne" and "Ar lan y môr mae blodau'r meibion" (By the sea is my sweetheart / By the sea are the flowers of youth) just as moving as if he had been singing "Frühlingstraum."

A friend waggishly reminded me "Now, you can't leave before the encores - hacks aren't allowed to!" - no doubt he knew exactly how my heart would sink at what I knew was to come. Taking them in reverse order, "How to handle a Woman" was sung with vast amounts of charm, elegant phrasing and expert timing - cue mass knicker-dropping from sections of the audience. "Mud, Glorious Mud" was - well - embarrassing, but then that's just me, and it has to be said that, as always, Terfel played his audience like an instrument, with Martineau aiding and abetting him in fine form; they are both real showmen in the best sense of that term, if it has one. Swathes of ecstatic sighing from ladies of a certain age, standing ovations from those who could still get to their feet without embarrassing themselves.

The first encore was Schubert's "Litanei auf das Fest Aller Seelen," and it was something else again. This sublime song, with its canon- like grandeur and its long, difficult lines, demands a perfect legato technique as well as the courage to sustain an almost rubato-less vocal production for two long stanzas, above a softly rocking piano line. The performance can only be described as virtually perfect; Terfel employed his wonderful sotto voce, especially in the upper part of his voice, in such a way as to have the audience hanging on each syllable, fining his tone down to a slender thread; I can truly say that I have never before heard such a silence from an audience as was evident here, not even at the Wigmore Hall. Ardderchog! (welsh, Fantastic!)

Melanie Eskenazi

 


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