Lenox — In a musically fulfilling and energetic entertainment in Ozawa Hall on July 9, the surpassing vocal technique and musicianship of Bryn Terfel, bass-baritone champion of Wales, were matched by, and occasionally overweighed by, his showmanship.
Responding to the opening burst of applause, he exclaimed, “It’s working already!” Later, in a collection of Wales-inspired songs, after beginning “Home on the Range,” reprised from his previous Ozawa Hall recital in 2013, Terfel invited the audience to sing along. Noting their hesitation with the unfamiliar second verse, he exclaimed sweetly, “You don’t even know this!”
After a gorgeously nuanced “Mack the Knife,” from Kurt Weill’s “Three Penny Opera,” sung in German as a first encore in, he delivered a stunning treatment of Arrigo Boito’s “Son lo spirito che nega sempre (‘The Whistle Aria’),” from the opera, “Mephistofele.” Terfel challenged the spellbound crowd, yet again. But this time, it was to whistle as loudly as he did. Suddenly, Ozawa Hall was transformed to Fenway Park! Where Terfel’s wolf-whistle was loud and amazingly melodic, the audience’s was anything but. Did they ever screech-whistle! Your poor, poor reviewer’s ears hurt.
And, oy, again, if he may! Did this Terfel walk the walk and kvetch the kvetch of Tevye in “If I were a Rich Man,” from “Fiddler on the Roof?” Did he ever, to end the concert, to clamorous applause. “From Wotan to Tevye!” one audience member exclaimed afterward, referring to one of Terfel’s famous Wagner roles, “What’s wrong with this picture?” Nothing, to your happy reviewer’s mind!
Along the way, there was some astounding music-making, notably in in the passionate, tragic “Fleur jettee,” or “Discarded Flower,” poem by Armand Silvestre, music by Gabriel Fauré, in which he revealed an upper range that was
rich, nuanced, subtle, and luminous, and in the flamenco-inflected, “Chanson a Dulcinee,” from the “Don Quichotte” suite of poems by Alexandre Arnoux, set to music by Jacques Ibert, starting with a controlled, warm, deep basso and ending in a honeyed, falsetto high A, with emotional transits from pining to revelation, repeating the couplet “A day lasts a year if I see not Dulcinea” after each verse, and evoking glorious metaphors, seeing his lover’s face in “every dawn and each flower” and sensing an exquisite breeze: “The wind brings me her breath when it passes over jasmines.”
Here is Feodor Chaliapin, the Russian basso to whom Terfel referred several times in the concert, singing the Chansons in French, and subsequently, in an English movie. The composition was commissioned, to be performed by Chaliapin from George Ibert by the film’s director, George Wilhelm Pabst, in his film of the Cervantes story. In the course of this concert, Terfel mentioned Chaliapin several times, noting the curious story of this commission: that it actually went first to Maurice Ravel, who submitted his score too late! (Sadly, it was Ravel’s last completed work.)
Here, first, is a quite excellent audio recording of Chaliapin, followed by a charming video excerpt from the movie, in an excellent print, with some raucous comedy, featuring Chaliapin’s heavily accented English and equally charming acting, over orchestral accompaniment. Note his sublimely expressive face and acutely sensitive phrasing. (One cannot but sense his influence on Bryn Terfel’s.)
In the movie version, the song cycle is delightfully punctuated by an amusing dialogue, a horseback ride into a herd of sheep, and Quichotte’s freeing a column of convicts, who mock his request to send his love to his “girlfriend,” Dulcinea. The knight’s squire, Sancho Panza, is played and sung by the superb George Robey, the British comedian, renowned by his fellow citizens and knighted as the “prime minister of mirth.”
The chansons start at 15:25, with the Chanson de la mort de Don Quichotte, the final song in the cycle, continuing at 51.18, following marvelous hijinks at Court, the notable fight with the windmill, and his sad demise before the pyre that burns the book of his adventures. Can there be a more elaborate scaffolding for a great performance of lieder in the entire history of music?
Franz Schubert’s “Gruppe aus dem Tartarus, or “Group from Tartarus” D. 583,” opened with a formidable statement, over roiling chords in the piano lower register:
“Hark – like the murmuring of the angry sea,
like a brook weeping through hollow, rocky gullies,
you can hear over there, deeply muffled,
a heavy, toneless groan,
extracted with torment!”
Metaphors of suffering in the underworld followed, over rising chromatic chords that presaged Richard Wagner’s own path-breaking harmony (there’s little doubt about Schubert’s influence). This was a daring look into the abyss, sung with a deep sense of tragedy and also, of alert warning to we the living.
In this powerful version of the first Tartarus song, Malcolm Martineau accompanies Terfel. His bold, urgent pianism is quite apposite to the dark sentiments.
In this concert, however, the pianist was the virtuoso Natalia Katyukova, whose musical emotions across the gigantic range nestled with astounding closeness to Terfel’s, and whose virtuosity Terfel saluted thusly after the second piece in the group: “Ladies and gentlemen, D-flat major, the hardest key I could have given Natalya, in this song.”
Such was the generous spirit and appealing charm of the evening.