A recital of songs by Schubert, Beethoven, Britten and Hahn is not only an interesting combination but also a difficult one. A tenor who decides to tackle such a recital must be brave and confident, I thought to myself. These two facts combined caught my attention and so I asked to review this CD published on Wigmore Hall’s own label (WHLive). The tenor in question is Matthew Polenzani, an American who has had a slow but steady career, with many distinguished appearances, rave reviews and landmark performances along the way. Polenzani is a lyrical tenor with a wide repertoire and great artistic versatility. I have before read various reviews full of praise for his singing and musical understanding but actually never heard him sing or watched him live on stage. This was yet another reason why I was curious to review this CD and I am pleased to say that it does not disappoint.
This recital was recorded live and judging by the sound of the applause, audible on the recording, it must have been a great success. Polenzani partnered here with the extraordinary Julius Drake, a pianist with whom he has worked to great critical acclaim. Seek out for instance reviews of their performance of Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin
at the Tully Hall, in New York, in April 2011. So, appropriately, this recording starts also with Schubert though not one of the composer’s famous song-cycles but several carefully chosen individual songs that are really mini-master pieces. Polenzani truly excels in this repertoire: his clean melodic line, clear tone, elegant phrasing and perfect enunciation suit the songs. He delivers a wonderful performance, discerning both in musical and emotional terms, applying just the right level of sentiment without becoming sentimental. Polenzani is never exuberant. He respects the music and demonstrates an excellent insight into the lyrics, perfectly merging the music with the poetry. This is a quality essential for an exceptional performance of Lieder
, which he definitely offers us in this delightful recording.
Beethoven’s only song-cycle An die ferne Geliebte
(The back cover of the CD booklet mistakenly states Op. 96 but it appears correctly as 98 inside, with the texts) follows Schubert and this, to me, is not only Polenzani’s best performance of the entire recital it is also the most beautiful. He demonstrates great sensitivity for the score and for the longing expressed by the lyrics. Each song is delivered with subtle emotion and astonishing clarity. We grasp every word and hear every note, as if singer and pianist were just a couple of metres away in one’s own living room. Polenzani’s use of the German language, both in Schubert and Beethoven, is simply outstanding. We hear perfectly correct pronunciation - a native could do no better. This is unusual in many Americans or singers from other English-speaking countries. They often struggle with a complex, unmelodic language such as German. It is all the more baffling that he appears slightly uncomfortable with Italian, a naturally musical, harmonious language, which, exactly due to these attributes, is almost instinctive to many singers. Although Polenzani performs Britten’s marvellous setting to music of sonnets by Michelangelo with great clarity and refinement, his Italian pronunciation was to me not as obvious as the German. There are moments where the words are difficult to understand and he did not appear as much at home with Britten as he did with Schubert and Beethoven. Britten’s Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo
express a certain gravity, at times solemnity that to my mind does not quite suit Polenzani’s voice. He possesses a delicate legato
line and a pure, harmonious tone, which I think are more suited to the Classic or the Romantic repertoires. Nevertheless, he delivers a powerful interpretation of the music and the poetry. Finally, Polenzani tackles Reynaldo Hahn’s melancholic songs Venezia
, sung in Venetian dialect. I cannot comment on the dialect because I have no knowledge of it but the singing is terrific.
Julius Drake on the piano is faultless throughout. His playing is admirably clear and so, every tone; every nuance of the music is distinctly heard. Drake is possibly one of the greatest accompanists of our time but also an extraordinary pianist. The manner in which he supports Polenzani’s singing is simultaneously unobtrusive and noticeable. He cushions the soloist’s vocal line but at the same time, he does not allow the piano to become subordinate. It is always an equal partner to the singer, truly accompanying the voice but never outshining it. Drake’s performance of Schubert’s songs is lyrical and delicate. His Beethoven is sensitive, yearning, echoing the poetry. He is excellent in Hahn’s Venezia
and luminous, positively outstanding in Britten. It is perhaps, the only section of the recording where, to my mind, the piano slightly eclipses the voice. Drake and Polenzani finish
the recital with an encore of the traditional Danny Boy
, perfectly sung and exquisitely played on the piano.
Patent throughout the CD is that Polenzani and Drake form a magnificent partnership - let us hope they will continue! This live recording is a work of remarkable quality and undoubtedly one of the foremost song recitals that I have ever heard. So, I feel I must close with five simple words: “More of the same, please!”
(Margarida writes more than just reviews, check it online at http://www.flowingprose.com/