Carnegie Hall, Isaac Stern Auditorium
Robert Schumann: Belsatzar, Op. 57 – Liederkreis, Op. 39 – Die beiden Grenadiere, Op. 49, No. 1 – Mein Wagen rollet langsam, Op. 142, No. 4
Gerald Finzi: Let Us Garlands Bring, Op. 18
Jacques Ibert: Chansons de Don Quichotte
Songs Associated with John Charles Thomas:
Oscar Rasbach: Trees
Arthur Sullivan: When the Night Wind Howls
Welsh Folk Song: Ar Hyd y nos
Albert Hay Malotte: Home on the Range – The Lord’s Prayer
Bryn Terfel (bass-baritone), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
B. Terfel (© Sheila Rock)
Even after I experienced two “knock ‘em dead” performances by Anna Netrebko in the same week (in Don Pasquale and the Richard Tucker Music Foundation Annual Gala), spending an evening with Bryn Terfel in recital felt like nothing less than a stunning demonstration of mass seduction by a born stage animal. While Netrebko wows audiences with her vocal gifts and exuberant personality, she does not establish the personal connection that Terfel does. He has an extraordinary – probably unequalled – ability to reach out and embrace an audience, to establish rapport, and make thousands of people in a huge auditorium feel as if they were in the company of an old and dear friend. Lots of these people were obviously firm fans. Just the expectation had the usually staid Carnegie Hall audience primed for joy. As soon as they caught sight of him striding onto the stage, they broke into vigorous applause, amplified with shouts of welcome. After two hours of charm, stories, smiles, winks, jokes and – oh yes – singing, their enthusiasm had not flagged a bit.
Before I talk about Terfel’s performance, a word about Malcolm Martineau – accompanist extraordinaire. He is the best of the best, and he was brilliant last night, whether it was in Schumann, where his delicate yet richly evocative performance amplified the sense of the text, or in Ruddigore, where he did double duty as the ghost. He is a self-effacing artist – always there, always just right. He and Terfel have worked together for years and it showed.
The program notes and Terfel himself told us that John Charles Thomas, an American baritone and grandson of a Welsh coal miner who died fifty years ago, was the inspiration for this recital. In a characteristically homey touch, Terfel said that he was introduced to Thomas by his own grandfather, who presumably also sang, as did both of Terfel’s parents. I have met very few Welsh people who were not involved with music. That’s one of the enchantments of Wales. Thomas was an opera singer, but he was also a very successful crossover artist. Does that remind you of anyone?
It’s impossible to know, of course, whether Thomas was an inspiration or merely a good device around which to organize a program. Either way, it was a clever choice. The music dedicated to Thomas was the highlight of the evening. The songs were punctuated by anecdotes delivered from the stage. Terfel was such a warm and friendly host, that a woman next to me was moved to remark, “He must be such a lovely father.” Terfel told us that after Thomas sang in a performance of Aida at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, that audience demanded he sing Home on the Range. He did. And so did Terfel, with the Carnegie audience enthusiastically joining in. If one had not been to a Terfel recital, it might have seemed rather surreal to hear the audience at America’s most august concert hall belting out this old American standard. But two years ago, they did the same thing when Terfel asked them to sing Molly Malone.
The songs in the Thomas portion of the program were a varied lot. In a musical version of Trees, a poem memorized by many American school children, Terfel demonstrated his mastery of singing in English; he caressed the words, transfiguring the familiar. Next up was Ar Hyd y nos, a wonderful Welsh folk song. On CD and in recital, Terfel is probably at his very best when singing in his native language.
A terrifically sung Gilbert and Sullivan song, “When the Night Wind Howls”, came next, the first of three tracks from his Bad Boys CD that Terfel would sing last evening. Just hearing his strong Welsh accent transformed into a proper English one was a delight. The recital ended with a lovely setting of The Lord’s Prayer. The intermittent wobble at the lower end of his range that was apparent during the rest of the program vanished completely here. It was a beautifully serene and moving performance.
Terfel has always been a master of text, with a knack for conveying the essence of the words through perfect diction and phrasing but also, through purely musical means; he illuminates the essence of words and moods through vocal coloring and especially minute control of dynamics. Throughout the evening, his way with words was most impressive, with German, English and French diction so clearly articulated that reading the words was unnecessary. However, perhaps because he is so fully immersed in the Wagnerian repertoire, – singing thirteen operas at the Met this season, on the back of all those performances of Die Meistersinger this past summer – scaling down that enormous voice proved to be a challenge.
And the prism-like colors of his glorious head voice were not as audible as they usually are. Terfel’s performance of Liederkreis did exhibit some lovely coloration in “In der Fremde”, and he gave us some eloquent word painting, such as that on the word “Eingeschlafen” in “Auf einer Burg.” He created a marvelously evocative mood of sadness in “Wehmut”. But there was sometimes roughness where he has previously offered refinement. Terfel’s French diction in the Ibert songs was faultless. He sang the last one, “Chanson de la Mort de Don Quichotte,” with a soft and gentle beginning, embodying consolation on the words, “Do not weep Sancho.” Martineau’s playing throughout these songs was simply gorgeous.
English songs have no finer and more determined exponent than Terfel, and the Finzi segment of the program was a highlight. Indeed, his performance of the first song, “Come away, death,” featured the most varied vocal colors of the evening– with excellent phrasing and diction, and rhythmic variety. His word painting on the word “dust” in “Fear no more the heat o’ the Sun” was subtle and haunting. “O Mistress mine” was the best sung of the art songs; Terfel’s performance embodied his particular gifts as well as being a great fit for his jolly personality.
The two encores, both from his “Bad Boys” CD, did not require any scaling down of his huge voice. Both were marvelously evocative, creating a character in just a matter of minutes. First up was a smoothly poisonous “Moritat von Mackie Messer,” with Terfel mischievously pretending to have a knife protruding from his chest. Next came a truly scary “Son lo spirito che nega” from Boito’s Mefistofele. Terfel left the stage to tumultuous applause, and I suspect that a substantial segment of the audience went along to purchase his recent CD’s (“Bad Boys” and the Christmas album featuring a studio-engineered duet with Bing Crosby) and have them signed.
Arlene Judith Klotzko