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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Watch out for the Pavamingo

By Norman Lebrecht / October 27, 2005

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No need to look for the next Pavarotti ö he's staring at you from magazine covers. Bryn Terfel, 40 in a fortnight, has sold more records than Big Lucy at the same stage in his career, sang more roles, touched more hearts. He inhabits one of those effulgent personalities that transcends whatever it is he is supposed to be doing, along with an ebullient fan base and a well-promoted ordinary blokiness that charms men and mums alike. He is, aside from such commercial assets, a classical baritone singer of exquisite refinement and range.

A baritone to succeed Pavarotti? It is not beyond reason. Terfel has more than sold half a million UK copies of his last classi-pop album, titled Bryn, and Deutsche Grammophon are ringing up pre-Christmas tills with a heavily branded follow-up, Simple Gifts, a mush of hymns and mood-songs in easy-listening arrangements. Terfel matches Pavarotti in his sincere lack of taste. On the new disc he sings a comically mismatched Panis Angelicus with the reconditioned boy-tenor Aled Jones, who chimes in sweetly half a beat late; a dirge by the advertising composer Karl Jenkins; and an egregious setting of The Deer Hunter theme-tune that leaves molar fillings screaming for replacement.

Like Pavarotti, Terfel runs a summer festival, an August weekend at his Welsh estate, Faenol, where he guilelessly mingles with the likes of Van Morrison and Alison Moyet. He stars in a new opera, out on Sony this month, a panoramic tale of French Revolution, sixteen years in the making, composed by the Pink Floyd guitarist, Roger Waters. Adeptly assembled, Ca Ira does not test Terfel's vocal skills ö it just gives him celebrity context. Like Pavarotti, Terfel is a country boy with both eyes on the main chance.

But why stop at Pavarotti when he could also be the next Domingo? A vacancy has opened at the head of Welsh National Opera and Terfel is being talked of as the next chief executive. If the Spanish tenor, at 63, can sing Verdi and Wagner on two continents while simultaneously running the opera houses of Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., there is no reason our Bryn can't organise a Cardiff season in his spare time. Married to a village sweetheart and with three young kids at school, Terfel spends more time at home than most opera stars. With an executive assistant and broadband on his laptop, he could raise funding for WNO and cast Fidelio in rehearsal breaks at the Met. Or so the plot goes.

It may appear to be an attractive solution, but those who cherish Terfel's rare gifts and care for the company's integrity will be aiming to stop the Bryn bandwaggon. What WNO needs is the steely managerial skills of men like Nicholas Payne (ex-Covent Garden and ENO) and John Evans (ex-Aldeburgh and BBC), the credible frontrunners. Bryn Terfel, as he turns 40, requires a different challenge altogether. He should be using the big birthday to take stock and ask himself some searching questions. What does he want to achieve as he enters the peak of his powers? Does he know where he's going? Is he sure he should be singing such mountains of candyfloss?

In terms of wish fulfilment, Terfel has gone beyond any wish lists he sketched at the 1989 Cardiff Singer of the World competition, where he lost to the Russian Dmitri Hvorostovsky, but won the specialist Lieder section and the heart of his song-crazed nation. That was his unique selling point in those days, the well-crafted yearnings of romantic masters, perfected at the Guildhall in London with the rigorous Rudolf Piernay, who taught him how to deepen emotion by varying volume in minute degrees. 'He was constantly picking on me for singing in one dynamic,' grouched Terfel.

Sixteen years on, Terfel outshines every other baritone in all major genres, leaving his rivals to mine the minor niches - Hvorostovsky in Slavonic roles, Mathias Goerne in abstruse modernisms, Thomas Quasthoff in Brahms, Simon Keenlyside in Bryn's shadow. No baritone has wielded such dominance since Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau half a century back, when opera houses would never cast a Wagner Ring without checking his diary and Hans Sachs in Mastersingers was his by right of first refusal.

Sachs is, for Terfel, a summit to come, along with the maturation of his Wotan, which he began last year at Covent Garden and will bring to fruition when the Ring is staged complete in 2007. Having covered most of the operatic mainstream, from Mozart to Richard Strauss, Terfel has not followed Fischer-Dieskau into the lesser heroes of Henze, Reimann, and Pfitzner but has branched instead into Broadway musicals and English song. He has sung Sweeney Todd at Chicago's Lyic Opera and his recorded recitals of English pastoralities, Butterworth to Britten, have banished for all time the over-precious, semi-strangulated, milky-tea assaults of indigenous convention.

It is in the intimacy of song, usually accompanied by Malcolm Martineau at the piano, that Terfel comes into his own. His articulation is crystal-clear in four languages and his volume control is microscopically subtle, taking the listener level by level down into the emotional chasm of Schubert's Erlkönig and Mahler's Songs of the Death of Children, the colours dark and vivid.

In opera, Terfel can be a blundering oaf as Falstaff or Figaro. In song, he has the fragility of Meissen china and the force of steel. There has never been a Lieder singer like him, and it is this aspect of his art that is getting neglected as he trundles down the middle of the crossover road. Terfel's concerts these days are mostly glamour galas and Christmas shows. To hear him sing a set of Lieder is a rare and festive occurrence and the qualities he brings to art song are starting, on the evidence of his latest album, to atrophy through neglect.

Simple Gifts is too simple by half, the delivery often monochrome and mundane, the shading of phrases almost non-existent. Lazy, bored or feted to the point of self-satisfaction, Terfel is wasting his gift on feeble tunes. If he hankers to be the next Pavamingo, this may be the way to go. But if he wants to be remembered a legend in song, the Merlin of the Lied, Bryn Terfel should give himself a birthday break and get back to the true simplicity of the art-song recital, shutting out all worldly distractions.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001