Rosenblatt Recitals – Lawrence Brownlee & Iain Burnside

Misero! O sogno, o son desto?, K431
Chanson triste; Extase; Le manoir de Rosamonde; Soupir;Phidylé
L’Italiana in Algeri – Languir per una bella
Tre sonetti di Petrarca [Pace non trovo; Benedetto sia’l giorno; I vid in terra angelici costume]
La fille du Régiment – Ah, mes amis, quel jour de fête
John Carter

Lawrence Brownlee (tenor) & Iain Burnside (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 25 May, 2010
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

Lawrence Brownlee. Photograph: Marty UmansThis was a long-awaited event. Lawrence Brownlee’s reputation as a sweet-voiced, elegant and agile tenor had gone before him and an almost capacity audience gathered at St John’s to hear the latest of the contemporary breed of bel canto tenors whom Ian Rosenblatt has engaged.

Before details of the programme were announced I suspect many would have expected the evening to be a showcase for Brownlee’s skills in Italian opera of the primo ottocento transferred to the concert platform. Two bravura arias of that school were indeed offered. Lindoro’s cavatina had both fluency in the divisions and thrilling excursions into the stratosphere.

To think that fifty years ago the light Rossini tenor was on the verge of extinction! The low esteem in which Italian operas of the nineteenth-century were held went hand in hand with the paucity of singers able to perform them. Gradually that began to change: as their musical worth was re-assessed, so singers emerged capable of doing justice to the fioriture. Initially skill in florid music was not accompanied by prepossessing tone (Rockwell Blake) while brilliance in the high register sounded freakishly separated from the basic sound of the voice (Chris Merritt). Now there is an abundance of such tenors, enabling further exploration of the bel canto repertoire.

The Rosenblatt Recital Series (now known as “Rosenblatt Recitals”) has reflected the proliferation of such tenors. The second recitalist to appear at St John’s in the series was Juan Diego Flórez. Other specialists in the high florid Italian repertoire have included Antonino Siragusa (who returns next season) and Gregory Kunde.

Iain Burnside. Photograph: Adrian WeinberchtIain Burnside stood aside to join in the audience’s ovation for his partner’s virtuoso feast in the Rossini, having played a not-inconsiderable part in establishing the change of mood in the light footsteps of his introduction. Another telling measure of the changed attitudes comes in the shape of Tonio’s bravura aria from “La fille du Régiment”. This was once considered virtually unsingable; Pavarotti’s initial fame stemmed from his assumption of the role at Covent Garden in 1965 opposite Joan Sutherland and his accurate striking of the target high notes. How extraordinary that it has become routine. Brownlee attacked the string of top Cs vigorously but without battering the listener as some current exponents of it do. In fact each of the aria’s sections was taken a trifle fast, with the odd word getting swallowed, but all was forgiven as he spectacularly extended the concluding dominant on the word “militaire”. When he encored the piece at the end of the concert he kept this going for a lung-busting twelve seconds!

One side of Brownlee’s musical character then is a show-stopping high tenor. His total programme contained more substantial fare, suggesting an all-round musician of distinction. The long Mozart Concert Aria offers little respite for the singer and Brownlee displayed the requisite vocal stamina, maintaining a tightly focused line through the changing moods. The complaints about his imprisonment and desperate cries for release in the recitative were stirring. He produced a fine legato in the andante section, ending with two faultless climbing phrases through the passaggio. He did not wholly dispel the feeling that the accusations of barbarity and declarations of hopelessness in the concluding allegro are excessively extended but one could admire his vocal security nonetheless.

This spacious auditorium is not ideal for the intimacy of Duparc. In “Chanson triste” and “Extase” the subtle changes in melodic and harmonic ideas did not always register, though the early “Soupir” received a hushed, loving performance which had the audience listening intently. In “Phidylé” singer and pianist luxuriated in the length and slow momentum of the song; they also reflected the mastery of its structure as first Brownlee, then Burnside, brought their parts to a close in convincing depictions of the poet’s confident anticipation of Phidylé’s awakening.Iain Burnside was no local accompanist contracted for the occasion to support the visiting singer. This could have been a long-established partnership who had honed their joint interpretations through years of international touring.

The balance between singer and pianist is equally democratic in Liszt’s Petrarch Sonnets. Burnside plunged crisply into the off-beat chromatics of the first song, where his part resembles a sonata movement, while the singer has a dramatic recitative and free arioso to convey the agonized paradoxes of the text. Some quasi-orchestral passages in “Pace non trovo” do presuppose a heavier voice than Brownlee’s but only very occasionally did the piano swamp the voice. The second song is modelled on the extended melody of a Bellini song, while the third resembles a devotional piece, with markings such as molto religiosamente. All three expand freely beyond the limits of their core form. Brownlee chose all the optional high alternatives. His Bs and D flats were freely produced, without the overt strain or wailing sounds one has heard from tenors who have the vocal strength but are not at home that far above the stave.

The programme ended with the American composer John Carter’s setting of spirituals, recorded live by Christine Brewer for the Wigmore Hall. It is a splendid work which fitted this pair like a glove. ‘Rondo’, with its range of different peals of bells for the pianist, contrasted with the depressing mood in the setting of ‘Sometimes I feel like a motherless child’. Inspiring was the call to united worship in ‘Let us break bread together’, which Brownlee ended with an “Amen” in head-voice. Exaltation was more the feeling embodied by the final ‘Ride on King Jesus’, the piano racing and rumbling in its vivid depiction of Christ’s untiring work. The tenor capped it with a triumphant high ending.

This series of recitals, which mixes established stars with young artists identified (accurately in the vast majority of cases) as singers with a future, is one of the jewels of London’s vibrant musical scene and Ian Rosenblatt continues to earn the gratitude of vocal enthusiasts for his enterprise. It deserves the wider circulation of being broadcast but the idea of operatic arias performed with piano apparently runs counter to the principles of the BBC. Fortunately the organisers now arrange for recitals to be recorded and made available on YouTube.

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