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On the Aisle



Carnegie Hall: Bryn Terfel

By Philip Anson / March 3, 2002
On the Aisle

Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel (photo left) returned to New York for a Carnegie Hall recital on March 3, 2002 after what seems like a very long absence. In fact, it has been less than a year since Terfel vanished from New York to the wilds of his native Wales following back problems.

TerfelTerfel's fans turned out in force on Sunday afternoon at to cheer their hero’s return. His recital opened with a well-chosen set of seven Schubert Lieder. The blustery An Schwager Kronos served as a vocal warm-up and ice breaker. Terfel’s artistry bloomed in Heidenroslein and continued through Musensohn, Geheimes, Wanderers Nachtlied, and Meeres Stille. Terfel’s voice remains uniquely rich, with a smoky depth and resonance found only in the finest instruments. As usual, his German diction was excellent. Each song was a small, atmospheric gem of art song interpretation.

Vaughan Williams’s Songs of Travel to poems by Robert Louis Stevenson followed. The Vagabond is almost Terfel’s theme song. It is hard to imagine a better interpreter than this son of Welsh sheep farmers. Let Beauty Awake is perhaps the highlight of Vaughan Williams’s uneven cycle, but Terfel did justice even to the filler. To quote one of Stevenson’s lyrics: “Bright is the ring of words / When the right man rings them.” Terfel is that man.

Demonstrating his remarkable gift for languages, Terfel sang three Duparc songs including the delicious L’invitation au voyage in impeccable French.

Roger Quilter’s Three Shakespeare Songs, Op. 6, followed, including the fine Come Away, Death.

I was less enthusiastic about three selections from Copland’s Old American Songs, including the twee lullaby The Little Horses and the portentous At the River. Terfel claimed it was the first time he got Copland’s tongue-twister Ching-a-Ring Chaw word perfect. American audiences love these songs. Marilyn Horne seems to include one in every recital she gives. Yet I find there is something phony and exploitative about Copeland’s sanitised folk songs and Negro spirituals.

Perhaps I was put off by the audience. It is great that Terfel can fill Carnegie Hall with fans. Too bad about their behaviour. The main offenders seemed to be those middle aged ladies from New Jersey who squeeze in matinee concerts twice a year in Manhattan between Sunday brunch and shopping. These well-intentioned folks seem never to have attended a classical music event before. They applauded between songs, even after Terfel playfully admonished them not to (it was also written in the program, for those who could read). They coughed, rustled, rattled, and whispered constantly. Between sets they screamed and clapped and stamped their feet like Bryn’s rugby buddies. When I asked the lady next to me not to forage in her purse, unwrap candies and suck loudly on them during the performance, she told me to “Go to hell!” With fans like these, who needs enemies?

The US premiere of Jake Heggie’s song cycle The Moon is a Mirror (2001), written especially for Terfel, was a non-event. Heggie has made a career of composing tonal ditties for his singer pals like Frederica von Stade, Barbara Bonney, Renée Fleming and now Terfel. It is mystifying that an artist like Terfel would program Heggie's wan efforts beside masterpieces by Schubert and Vaughan Williams. The five ditties in The Moon is a Mirror sounded like mushy cabaret tunes straining to become high art. The piano meandered, vainly searching for ideas while Terfel dutifully recited the doggerel poems by American Vachel Lindsay featuring unsingable lines like “The moon’s a brass-hooped water keg / A wondrous water-feast,” and “The moon’s a peck of corn / Heaped up for me to eat.” Schubert had Goethe, Duparc had Baudelaire, Quilter had Shakespeare. Heggie chose Lindsay. Enough said.

Encores included the comic “I Chanced Upon a Big Brown Bear,” a Welsh lullaby, and a surprise duet - “Au fond du temple saint” from Bizet’s Les Pecheurs de perles. Terfel was joined by Welsh tenor Gwynn Jones, who is singing Fenton to his Falstaff at the Met in March and April. Accompaniment by pianist Malcolm Martineau was exemplary.

> Carnegie Hall


(c) La Scena Musicale 2001 and Philip Anson