Wigmore Hall Midsummer Gala – Bryn Terfel & Malcolm Martineau

Sea fever; Vagabond; The bells of San Marie
Captain Stratton’s fancy
Salt water ballads
Vaughan Williams
Songs of Travel – The roadside fire; The House of Life – Silent noon
Now sleeps the crimson petal, Op.3/2; Weep you no more, sad fountains, Op.12/1; Go, lovely rose, Op.24/3; Fair house of joy, Op.12/7
Liebesbotschaft, D957/1; Wandrers Nachtlied II, D768; Litanei auf das Fest Allerseelen, D343; An Silvia, D891

“Songs from the Celtic Lands” – Loch Lomond; Passing By; Danny Boy; Ar hyd a nos; Molly Malone

Bryn Terfel (bass-baritone) & Malcolm Martineau (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 19 June, 2008
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

This ‘black tie’ concert, attended by the Duke of Kent and Princess Alexandra, was a major part of a fund-raising initiative to repay loans taken out to purchase a centuries-long lease on Wigmore Hall in order to assure its existence as a venue for wide-ranging and distinguished musical programmes (see the 19 June 2008 entry on this site’s Classical News). It provided donors with a relatively rare opportunity to hear Bryn Terfel in a recital.

Bryn TerfelSuch events tend to have a marginally different ethos from other such recitals. The programme itself, for example, will often be less tightly structured, with disparate themes rather than a single one: In this case the choice of songs had an air of “Bryn Terfel’s Favourites”, with plums from twentieth-century English-song, four unconnected Schubert settings and traditional crowd-pleasers “from the Celtic Lands”. The audience also has different expectations; that the evening should loosen up as it proceeds. This was true of this occasion.

Terfel and Malcolm Martineau began with a John Ireland group, to poems by John Masefield. The sailor yearning for re-union with the sea in “Sea Fever” was no mystic but a down-to-earth unromantic merchant seaman. The tone had the texture of callused hands, the words were forward, the manner unreserved. The song was carefully shaped, the first two verses each swelling to a powerful climax before subsiding, the last on a lower dynamic curve and fading to reflection on a vision of death. The earthy clarity of Terfel’s enunciation was well-suited to the homespun philosophy of the subject in “Vagabond”, though I find myself in agreement with Richard Stokes’s opinion when he says that “poet and composer were unable to render demotic language convincingly”. “The bells of San Marie” alternated urgency with relaxation and Terfel’s trademark colouring of individual words came to the fore (“They rock and sway and hale … And down the lusty ale”).

Alcohol-fuelled exhilaration was shared by both Terfel and Martineau in Warlock’s “Captain Stratton’s fancy”. The singer prefaced it by recounting how he had been plied with fine wines at a luncheon the previous day and pre-empted criticism of memory lapses in the lyrics; this proved prophetic, as he confused lines from different verses. The words were, however, enacted with vulgar motions (“…to warm my copper nose”) and camp vocal gestures to point the contrast between Spanish and French wine, the latter dismissed contemptuously as effete.

The least familiar yet the most rewarding of the Masefield songs were the settings of “Three Salt-Water Ballads” by Frederick Keel. ‘Port of many ships’ and ‘Trade winds’ again exemplified the performers’ structural command: the former song was graded, from its conversational opening, through the materialisation of its main melody to the contented sinking away in the final stanza. ‘Trade winds’ was warmly lyrical, though able to embrace both detailed word-painting from the singer and a massive crescendo-diminuendo in the last verse. Experience of Italian patter-song doubtless helped Terfel to cope with the hectic ‘Mother Carey’, taken at a tremendous lick.

Malcolm MartineauMoving inland, the mood changed. “The roadside fire”, first of the Vaughan Williams pair, formed an ideal transition piece, as its highly-strung opening gave way to a mystical conclusion, enhanced by Terfel’s use of head voice in the final phrase. So we settled into the tranquillity of “Silent noon”, a song which, in this performance, seemed structured with impeccable logic. The return of the opening theme was a gloriously satisfying moment, Terfel caressing the last line (“When twofold silence was the song of love”) with melting beauty.

With the first song of the Roger Quilter group, I began to have some reservations. Singer and pianist treated the familiar “Now sleeps the crimson petal” with an unorthodox assertiveness, Terfel adopting a stern tonal quality, then making the final appeal to the beloved more lascivious than romantic – an interpretation I found hard to accept. It occurred to me to question whether a singer’s words could be too clear: certainly the shadowy musing I expect in this song would struggle to survive such precise articulation of the English language. The other three songs in the group received more mainstream interpretations, with plenty of vocal detail to admire, a concluding ppp in “Weep you no more, sad fountains”, verbal colouring in “Go, lovely rose” and a full-hearted outpouring in “Fair house of joy”.

It was noticeable that, whereas Terfel had been quite mobile in the English songs, he withdrew slightly and stood consistently still for the four Schubert offerings, as if out of respect for their unquestioned genius. Again I found the group unsatisfying. Martineau compromised the magic of “Liebesbotschaft” by beginning it before the welcoming applause had died. Then, when the voice entered, it was too loud; surely the poet is whispering to the gently flowing stream? “Wandrers Nachtlied” contained miracles of breath control but insufficient caressing of line. In “An Silvia” charm was perversely replaced by aggression: consonants were underlined, some semiquavers given with excessive staccato and the final verse heralded with a big accelerando.

The one song in this group that emerged unscathed was “Litanei auf das Fest Allerseelen”. Terfel explained how he had the previous week recorded this song in the chapel on Bardsey Island, as part of a BBC series in which six different locations were used, each for the performance of a single song. The magic of the occasion clearly still lingered with him, as he gave an intensely concentrated rendering of the song, never rising above mezzo forte.

With the Celtic songs it was Martineau’s turn to shine: the arrangements used (provenance unknown) had many felicities and delightful surprises. Only that for “Passing by” was too sophisticated for the vocal line – and greeted by the audience with silence, only bursting into applause when the singer remarked: “I thought I sang that pretty well!”. Terfel, who expended considerable artistry on the simple melodies, was by this time metamorphosing into a Master of Ceremonies in the realm of popular entertainment. He had been commanding throughout, now the audience was eating out of his hand. Songs were introduced with anecdote and history and eventually he invited, nay instructed the audience to join in the chorus of “Molly Malone”. The witticism this time was “They sang it better in Amsterdam last week”.

The encores continued the process of letting the hair down (and loosening the purse strings of the members of the audience, each of whom had already paid £250.00 each for their tickets in the form of donations to the Wigmore cause). “If I can help somebody” (Alma B. Androzzo) was followed by ‘Don Giovanni’s Serenade’ from Mozart’s opera, in which Terfel left the platform to woo several ladies in the audience. Tosti’s “Serenata” came next, before proceedings were completed with “Sul y blodau”, in which the soft singing of the word “cwsg” (sleep) reminded me of some great Welsh singers of the past.

Terfel was in magnificent, powerful voice: in this vocal state he could sing Wotan as beautifully as the role has ever been sung. If there were moments when he threatened to overwhelm the music on this Wigmore programme, everything else was perfectly judged and little was subtracted overall from a precious occasion.

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