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A Life More Ordinary

New York
Carnegie Hall
04/12/2004 -  
Songs by Schubert, Williams, Parry, Gurney, Vaughn Williams, Quilter, Warlock, Schumann, Britten and Tosti
Bryn Terfel (bass-baritone)
Malcolm Martineau (piano)

“They understand the heart’s yearning,
They know the pain of love;
With their silvery notes,
They touch every tender heart.”

Ludwig Rellstab, “Staendchen”

Bryn Terfel is in town, fresh from rather lukewarm reviews of his John the Baptist in the Metropolitan Opera’s new Salome. Of course, Mr. Terfel kept his clothes (if not his head) and so might have been overlooked in the feeding frenzy of sensationalism. Now was his turn to try and conquer another cavernous venue for a solo voice, the somewhat unfriendly confines of Carnegie Hall.

It is hard not to like this engaging fellow. He is surely at ease on the stage, keeping up the snappy patter with his silent accompanist only mugging and nodding, Teller to his Penn. Even when he forgot the words to one of the songs, he handled the situation with ease, stepping out of character to let the audience in on the secret. Additionally, he chose and shaped an excellent program, Schubert and then Schumann to lead off the two distinct halves, traditional songs and English ditties as their respective middles, and light fare for each ending. On paper, this was a fabulous recital.

And yet I didn’t care for virtually any of it. Right from the start it was obvious that there was not a great deal of emotional investment in the pieces at hand. The second song, the poignant and delicious Schubert serenade quoted above, was intoned as if by rote, each note a perfect pear perhaps, but no softness of feeling, no true romance, not even any regret. Had Mr. Terfel never heard a Schubert lied before? This pattern of detachment continued throughout and, since the voice itself is rather ordinary, there was little to write home to Cardiff about. To be fair, he does possess an athletic tessitura, from low tenor to mid-bass, but the prospect of his singing Wotan next year at Covent Garden does not inspire this reviewer to queue up for press passes.

Terfel did do a remarkable job in the Vaughn Williams ballad Whither Must I Wander? and conceivably went awry during the programming phase of this otherwise pedestrian effort. Perhaps he should have scotched Schubert and Schumann for more lyrically epic German ballads, such as the heroic Brahms or Loewe settings (I can certainly hear him in my mind’s ear as Edward). But this bill of fare seemed to be designed to allow Mr. Terfel to explore his pop side without sinking into the Bocelli mud (cf. his new “Bryn Terfel Sings Favorites” at your local CD emporium). If he wants to crossover, then let him stay there.

At the end of the day, or in this case a rather long evening, the big problem was a singular lack of communicated human emotion. When Bryn Terfel sang ”Danny Boy”, there wasn’t a wet eye in the house.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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