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Music to My Ears

March 18, 2008

Great music has a way of repeating itself, especially in recital. Just three months ago, SFCV carried my review of a Cal Performances recital by baritone Mariusz Kwiecien that included Ravel's final song cycle, Don Quichotte à Dulcinée, and Robert Schumann's Dichterliebe. I noted at the time that, since 2001, no fewer than 10 other baritones, two tenors, and two lyric sopranos had performed the latter work in the Bay Area.
Add to that list the glorious baritone Eugene Brancoveanu, who programmed both cycles plus the five songs of Gerald Finzi's Let Us Garlands Bring for his San Francisco Performances-sponsored salon last Wednesday at the Hotel Rex. Brancoveanu made a smash on Broadway in 2002 as Marcello in Baz Luhrmann's La Bohème, snaring both an honorary Tony and a Los Angeles Stage Alliance Ovation Award; deepened his craft as a Merolini and Adler Fellow; debuted at Spoleto Festival USA and the New York City Opera in the past year; and is set to sing one of the leads in San Francisco Opera's The Little Prince and reprise his role in MTT's The Tomashevskys. Endowed with a uniquely rich, at this point lyric voice that can encompass bass-baritone roles yet sing a high B flat, he is an extremely intelligent, energized artist who is unafraid to take risks.

That is not to say that those risks involved eccentricities. Readers who attended Dichterliebes by Kwiecien, Gerald Finley, and Ian Bostridge may recall how hard those big-name singers strove to put their personal stamp on Schumann's cycle. Bostridge engaged in melodramatic stage play, at one point turning his back on the audience, and gave a characteristically precious, overdone performance. Finley's overly self-conscious artistry slowed the life out of some songs and machoed up others. And the testosterone-laden Kwiecien was so fixated on proving his manhood and mastery that he oversang at least half the time, indulging in a host of indisputably gorgeous yet ultimately off-putting vocal effects.

Brancoveanu, thank God, did none of that. Instead, he approached every song on his demanding program with extraordinary fidelity to the composer's emotional intent. In short, he gave us a nonstop concert of Finzi, Schumann, and Ravel as sung by Brancoveanu, rather than a recital that used Schumann and Ravel as vehicles for ego display. As such, he found an able partner in John Parr, whose understated pianism complemented his approach.
Passion for Singing
I have previously described Brancoveanu as singing with a "pearl on the voice." From the third row, with his naturally large instrument sailing over the fully open piano at all volume levels, the glorious bloom of the voice seemed a natural reflection of his personality. As he interspersed superb vocalism with humorous personal anecdotes and quasi-pedagogical, philosophical musings — all spoken with relaxed, unforced resonance — the comfortably attired artist made abundantly clear how much he enjoys life and singing.

If Brancoveanu's vocalism has any limitation, it is that the glowing, shining edge of his tone sometimes disappears when he sings softly. At those moments, at least at close range, the voice can occasionally sound a mite frayed. This seems to be a technical limitation more than anything else. I detect no wear per se; everything above mezzopiano sounds marvelously intact.

One "solution," of course, would be to rarely sing quietly. But Brancoveanu is a singer who, in my estimation, tempers heart and passion with intelligence. Always belting it out simply will not do in this repertoire. Thus, he resists hiding his limitation. In the end, it makes him more vulnerable, and helps erase the distance between artist and audience. We are all mere mortals doing our best to make it through with as much love and grace as possible. It's just that some of us sing like gods.
Ideally Suited to the Music
Brancoveanu proved ideal for the five Finzi songs, to texts by Shakespeare. He may have been born in Romania and raised in Germany, but his English pronunciation and speech were so clear that printed lyrics were neither supplied nor required. (Nor would German and French speakers have needed them for the Schumann and Ravel.) His spirit, energy, and vocal ebullience were also perfect for such gems as Who Is Silvia? and It Was a Lover and His Lass.

In addition, he identified totally with the suffering protagonist in Dichterliebe. His wonderful, heartfelt delivery of the opening song, "Im wunderschönen Monat Mai" (In the wondrous month of May), immediately set the tone for what was to follow. Lines were occasionally punctuated midway by an apparently natural, unique-to-Brancoveanu sob/extra emission of energy that uniquely underscored emotional intent. (The slight "yip" of excitement with which Lotte Lehmann sometimes ended urgent phrases comes to mind.)

Brancoveanu began "Im Rhein" (In the Rhine) with all the gravitas you could ask for. The extraordinary seventh song, "Ich grolle nicht" (I bear no grudge), though taken at a rapid clip, climaxed on an effortlessly voiced, gleaming high A, and then concluded with ironic bitterness. The subsequent "Und wüsten's die Blumen" (If the little flower knew) was no less impressive in its heartfelt emoting. Equally magnificent was the powerhouse ending of "Ich hab' im Traum geweinet" (I wept in my dream). So was the softer, eloquent conclusion to the final song.

Don Quichotte à Dulcinée was almost as fine. Brancoveanu could have done a bit more with the ending of "Chanson romanesque" (Romantic song), and made "Chanson épique" (Epic song) a little more prayerful. But "Chanson à boire" (Drinking song) was splendid in every respect. So were the ringing high notes on the encore, Respighi's Nebbie (Fog), as well as the generous answers to questions from the roomful of admirers.

There were a few times — the ending of "Ein Jungling liebt ein Mädchen" (A boy loves a girl) and the final postlude come to mind — when I wished Parr had stretched things out a bit and made more of his solo opportunities. But, rather than establishing himself as a poet in his own right (as several other recent Dichterliebe accompanists have insisted on doing), he seemed intent on allowing Brancoveanu to dominate. Which is fine by me.

Eugene Brancoveanu: If you continue singing like this, I envision a Figaro of my dreams at the Met. I hope to be there.

Jason Victor Serinus regularly reviews music and audio for Stereophile, SFCV, Classical Voice North America, AudioStream, American Record Guide, and other publications. The whistling voice of Woodstock in She’s a Good Skate, Charlie Brown, the longtime Oakland resident now resides in Port Townsend, Washington.

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