Belsatzar, Op.57; Liederkreis, Op.39; Die beiden Grenadiere, Op.49/1; Mein Wagen rollet langsam, Op.142/4
Let Us Garlands Bring, Op.18
Chansons de Don Quichotte
Ar Hyd a Nos
Higley & Kelly
Home on the Range
Gilbert & Sullivan
Ruddigore – The Ghost’s High Noon
The Lord’s Prayer
Bryn Terfel (bass-baritone) & Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette
Reviewed: 17 November, 2010
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
During 1840 and the periods directly before and following that year, Robert Schumann wrote more than 150 songs (many included in five monumental song-cycles). Terfel and Martineau were assured and characterful in one of the last songs written during that burst of creativity, “Belsatzar”, based on the Biblical story of the death of Belshazzar. While Terfel at first sounded a little hard around the edges and had a touch of wobble above the middle range, his voice quickly settled into its distinctive, rich sound, while conveying portents of the brutal fall of the king with which the song ends. The Opus 39 “Liederkreis” is of twelve songs on nature and travel to poems by Eichendorff (the Opus 24 “Liederkreis” sets Heine), with strong similarities to Schumann’s piano-cycles on nature and youth, a challenge for both singer and pianist. Terfel and Martineau summoned the wide variety of images and moods demanded by Schumann. Terfel remains one of the most extrovert of Lieder singers, but has tempered his more overtly physical gestures, which put an even greater focus on the beauty, emotion, and intensity of both the words and melodies – and, with Martineau’s broad palette of sound and refined phrasing, brought more vivid character and variety to these musical scenes, more so than I have heard in any performance. The first half of the recital ended with two of Schumann’s longer settings. “Die beiden Grenadiere”, though a work of the early romantic era, has more than a few portents of Mahler’s ‘Wunderhorn’ songs. Terfel’s poignant storytelling of two French soldiers on the losing side of the Napoleonic Wars culminated in Schumann’s powerful, tragic re-setting of the “Marseillaise”. “Mein Wagen rollet langsam” sports a particularly prominent piano part, which Martineau dispatched with character and wit as Terfel brought the bucolic imagery to life.
Englishman Gerald Finzi composed during the first-half of the last century, but his compositional style was strongly conservative and particularly suited to vocal music, and it is as a song-composer – including six cycles on lyrics of his favorite poet, Thomas Hardy – that he is best known. “Let Us Garlands Bring”, however, sets five Shakespeare texts, and are enormously atmospheric reflections on love and death. It was here that Terfel put the more chameleonic nature of his voice to use, and imparting more than a touch of theater with his gestures.
It might be hard to believe that Jacques Ibert’s four “Chansons de Don Quichotte” are in fact film music, written for G. W. Pabst’s “The Adventures of Don Quixote” and the film’s leading man, Fyodor Chaliapin. The first, second, and fourth songs – on Quixote’s departure to Dulcinea, and on Quixote’s death – might easily be mistaken for music by Granados or Turina; the third, ‘The Duke’s Song’, fits comfortably in the orbit of Debussy and Satie. Terfel’s touching portrait revealed Quixote as a tragic figure, a depiction driven home strongly by Martineau’s atmospheric pianism.
The final portion of the concert was a tribute to one of the greatest singers in American history, John Charles Thomas (1891-1960), an enormously popular entertainer of Welsh descent. Thomas was a best-selling recording artist and broadcaster who successfully crossed over from popular-music to an international career in opera, and is believed to have had one of the widest repertoires of any performing artist in history. Terfel announced the selections as he recounted the story and career of Thomas, opening the set with Oscar Rasbach’s setting of the Joyce Kilmer poem “Trees”, one of the most popular ballads of the early-twentieth-century and an early recording hit for Thomas. Terfel’s reserved rendition showcased a setting at home in both the concert hall and salon. The traditional Welsh song “All Through the Night” was another of Thomas’s favorites; Terfel sang it with a careful balance of restraint and ardor in the original language, in Chris Hazell’s arrangement. Terfel cajoled the audience into joining in for the refrain of a song Thomas made an international hit, David Guion’s “Home on the Range” – and tapped into his gift for comedy for one of the best Gilbert & Sullivan operetta selections, ‘The Ghost’s High Noon’ (“When the night wind howls…”) from “Ruddigore”, with both energetic accompaniment and a few well-timed tenor interjections from Martineau. The final selection was by Albert Hay Malotte, best-known these days as the composer for some of the early Disney animations, including “Ferdinand the Bull”. Malotte’s setting of “The Lord’s Prayer” was another of Thomas’s best-selling selections. Terfel brought ardor and passion to this brilliantly crafted sentimental song.
And, yes, there were encores: a suave, intimate performance of ‘Moritat der Mackie Messer’ (Mack the Knife) from Kurt Weill’s “Die Dreigroschenoper” (The Threepenny Opera) and ‘So lo Spirito che nega’ from Boito’s “Mefistofele”. Terfel’s brash, commanding depiction gave the audience a taste of the sort of villain one loves to hate, and brought to an end one of the most satisfying performances of the season so far – and one of the best vocal recitals I’ve heard in some years.