Im Frühling, D882; Fischerweise, D881; Der Einsame, D800; Nachtstück, D672; An Silvia, D891
An die ferne Geliebte, Op.96
Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, Op.22
Venezia – Chansons en dialecte vénitien
Traditional – Danny Boy
Matthew Polenzani (tenor) & Julius Drake (piano)
Recorded 1 May 2010 in Wigmore Hall, London
Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson
Reviewed: November 2011
CD No: WIGMORE HALL LIVE
Duration: 76 minutes
Some of the best and most worthwhile recordings of recent times have emanated from ‘live labels: The Wigmore Hall series consists of much more than souvenirs, recorded to a most satisfying degree in capturing the ambience of the Hall with a feeling of intimate contact with the music-making.
Since he graduated from supporting roles, Matthew Polenzani has been gathering golden opinions in increasingly testing operatic roles and has struck up a recital partnership with Julius Drake. There are certainly no reservations about the voice: it is sweet and mellifluous, enchanting in soft singing, reedier at forte and beyond.
My doubts concern the content and shape of the programme. It gives the impression of being conservative, as if the tenor wanted to run as few risks as possible until he reached the challenges of Britten’s Michelangelo Sonnets. So he opens the recital with a Schubert group consisting of five popular songs. Of course nothing is easy (only An Sylvia seems a little off-hand) and Polenzani deploys his prize asset, his ingratiating tone, generously throughout the group. The voice can be heard still warming up, the first E flat with fermata is a little soggy, the two which follow increasingly confident, indeed the final one heavenly. Just a hint of routine is present, however, though not from Julius Drake. Im Frühling is a thoroughly subdued song, littered with pp and ppp markings, with only one mf instruction in the F minor episode and few dynamics to observe. Schubert depicts a lazy spring day. There is always a danger of falling into somnolence but Drake never allows the pace to slacken and his treatment of what is basically a set of variations maintains interest throughout. Der Einsame with its unceasing quaver accompaniment and little gruppetto figures ideally portrays the avuncular contentment of the recluse and the hushed, quasi-religious solemnity of Nachtstück makes one hold one’s breath.
At the other end of the evening Polenzani gorges himself on Hahn’s Venetian Songs; I am at a loss to explain why lyric tenors don’t sing them more often. There are the obligatory lapping waves in ‘La biondina in gondoleta’, the melody drifting over the lagoon in ‘Sopra l’acqua indormenzada’, with entertaining counterbalance coming from the mischievous wit of ‘Che peccà!’. The vocal control which Polenzani applies to them has to be admired (and audibly is by the Wigmore audience, heard for the first time in this otherwise ‘silent’ recording).
Every performance of An die ferne Geliebte seems to pose the question of the age of its subject. The poetry is certainly naïve and Beethoven’s settings are characterised by abrupt and extreme tempo changes and sudden dynamic shifts. Polenzani’s bright, boyish timbre makes me think of a rather gauche adolescent. He certainly does not avoid melodrama in, for example, the big crescendo and stringendo which ends the first song and occurs even more elaborately at the very end of the cycle. In both cases Polenzani comes perilously close to shouting. A more moderate approach to strong feelings is present in the second song, where a similar release of excitement stays the right side of vulgarity, the voice retaining its beauty. In ‘Leichte Segler in den Höhen’ Beethoven conveys a mix of boyish excitement and intense feeling, the first using rests between notes, the second uninterrupted crotchets. Unfortunately Polenzani doesn’t always distinguish between them. Elsewhere there is much to enjoy: the weightless dance of ‘Diese Wolken in den Höhen’ and the persistent mezza voce of his singing in ‘Es kehret der Maien’.
The pianist has a crucial role in An die ferne Geliebte, in which the songs follow each other without pause, the instrument being used to announce the mood of each new setting. Certainly Drake’s introduction to ‘Es kehret der Maien’ holds the listener in thrall wondering where the music will lead when the voice does finally enter. There is much more to it than that, indeed in some cases it is the very spring which powers the cycle. In the opening song, though the vocal line is virtually identical each time, the variations in the accompaniment are propelling the poet forward from inertia to positive action in bridging the gap to his beloved. The voice-less beats between each verse grow ever more urgent, the support to the melody fuller up to the decisive block-chords in verse four which announce the solution to his frustration. In ‘Wo die Berge so blau’ Beethoven goes further and assigns the melody to the piano while the voice sings on a monotone.
I believe that the real-life recital also featured Liszt’s Petrarch Sonnets. Space limitations dictated the omission of something from the release and the partnership has recorded the Liszt for Hyperion. However, its loss makes the programme seem rather like an unbalanced sandwich, with two rather insipid slices of bread enclosing a highly-spiced slice of meat.
When I recently reviewed Nicholas Phan in the Michelangelo Sonnets I reported that he had not freed himself entirely from the influence of the work’s creator, Peter Pears; the idiosyncratic tone production of Britten’s partner was still to be heard, particularly around the top of the stave. Here there is not a hint of the Pears bleat. Polenzani is his own man. He applies his sweet, rounded tone to Britten’s Italianate vocal writing. Maybe he does not show quite the level of engagement with the philosophical undertones of Michelangelo’s poetry but Polenzani is much the more demonstrative interpreter. He shows his hand right from the start, emulating the power of the piano octaves, using reserves of strength in the high tessitura which had previously seemed to be well outside his comfort zone. Here and elsewhere he conveys the poet’s intensity with a delivery of the text that resembles singing through clenched teeth.
‘A che più debb’io mai l’intensa voglia’ is sung like a secret confession, with the name of the man he loves only emerging in the final phrases, concealed behind a pun on the name of Tomasso Cavalieri. ‘Veggio co’ bei vostri occhi in dolce lume’ displays the singer’s Italianate phrasing and breath control. He handles the central climax of the song with authority: his swelling tone at “Dal vostr’arbitrio son pallido e rosso” is like emerging from gloom into bright sunlight. The fast pace of ‘S’un casto amor’ is negotiated without loss of clarity in enunciating the words, a feature of Polenzani’s singing throughout the recital. Drake characterises the mood in each song with vividness.
The recital is stripped of some of its strength and impact by the omission of the Liszt. On the positive side, I have heard Danny Boy many times sung as an encore, and quite often it is overloaded with emotion. Here its sentimental message is lightly traced, much to the son’s advantage.