Recordings artificially freeze our conceptions of an artist’s instrument and performance to a single moment in time. This is especially true of singers, where the vocal instrument itself evolves significantly over time. A master singer at 25 will, almost without exception, have a very different vocal quality a decade later. This transition may be lost on a listener – popping in a CD or selecting a video on Youtube, after all, refreshes our perception of the artist’s sound and delivery at a fixed point in time. If this applies to you, you probably would have been surprised to hear Bryn Terfel in recital on Wednesday at the Schubert Club.
Bryn Terfel made his professional opera debut in 1990, as Guglielmo in Welsh National Opera’s production of Cosi fan tutte. Within a decade, he became one of the most celebrated interpreters of Mozart operas. This impression of his voice was reinforced by a divergence between Terfel’s stage roles and his recorded ones: the bass-baritone first tackled Wagner onstage in 1993, but it was many years before he was recorded singing those roles. If you don’t traffic classical music websites and stopped buying DVDs before 2012, say, you might be a Terfel fan and merrily ignorant of his having become an internationally lauded Wagnerian singers of the early 21st century. These listeners were in for a very pleasant surprise at the Ordway’s Music Theater when Terfel took the stage.
Describing a master singer’s voice without descending into superlatives is a difficult task that often brings out the thesaurus. Terfel’s instrument has matured with a depth and gravity that deepens his delivery of pieces like the quartet of Welsh folk songs with which he began the evening. With the Three Salt-water Ballads that followed, the Music Theater audience became hushed in rapt silence, as rapt as grandchildren listening to Grandfather’s bedtime story…but if Grandfather had this kind of voice, they stayed up into the late hours, begging for more stories (indeed, this audience got the equivalent, with no fewer than six encores).
Terfel and pianist Natalia Katyukova followed the ballads with Jacques Ibert’s Chansons de Don Quichotte, the set of songs that ultimately beat out Ravel’s Don Quichotte à Dulcinée songs for a film score. The Ibert songs are more rarely performed than the Ravel songs; “Chanson à Dulcinée” and “Channson de la Mort” were especially memorable. These were followed by a medley of six Welsh songs (one with English lyrics) that made a perfect end to the first half.
The second half of the concert commenced with Robert Schumman’s Belsatzar, a song-cantata of sorts dramatizing the “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin” scene from Belshazzar’s Feast. This piece is quite difficult; afterwards, Terfel shushed the applause and displayed some of his well-known humor while apologizing for some lyrical foibles. (He’d earlier gently admonished the audience for applauding in the middle of song sets.) Then came the Two Venetian Airs by Schumman, which were so lovely rendered by Katyukova and Terfel that they might inspire some trips to see if Venice is as splendid and beautiful as they made it sound. The formal portion of the program concluded with a set of Schubert songs, including a splendidly spooky “Scenes from Hades.”
If that had concluded the program, the evening would have been quite splendid. Terfel and Katyukova returned to the stage for repeated ovations, however, each time gifting the audience with an encore and introductory remarks by Terfel:
- “Lord’s Prayer” (Albert Haye Malotte)
- “Home on the Range “(Daniel Kelley)
- “Green Eyed Dragon” (Wolesley Charles)
- “Moritat von Mackie Messer,” from Die Dreigroschenoper (Kurt Weill)
- “Litanei auf das Fest Aller Seelen” (Franz Schubert)
- “If I Were a Rich Man,” from Fiddler on the Roof (Jerry Bock)
A group singing of “Home on the Range” was probably not what the classical music fans in the Ordway were expected, but it put smiles on faces and filled the halls of the Music Theater with rare group singing. That’s something to talk about with your friends – the time you and Bryn Terfel sang together to a full house at the Ordway.
Basil was named one of Musical America's 30 Professionals of the Year in 2017.