April 1, 2014
Midway through the first song in bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni and pianist Wolfram Rieger’s anything but April Fools recital, the great voices of singing’s fabled “Golden Age” came to mind. It wasn’t Pisaroni’s vocal color per se, which is as dark and handsome as his face and bearing, but rather the rare singing quality of his vocal line. You would have to search far and wide, present and past, to find another bass-baritone who can emit a line as smooth, even, and connected as Pisaroni’s. The unforced lyricism of his tone, and the all-of-one-piece, connected nature of his instrument from top to bottom, are truly a well-nurtured gift from God.
The true singing quality of Pisaroni’s voice (sometimes referred to as cantante or cantabile) was emphasized by the curious acoustic of Nourse Auditorium. The hall is not dry per se, but its resonance favors the lower reaches of voice and piano over their high ringing edge. It’s a venue San Francisco Performances will abandon next year, having had its fill of intrusive horns, sirens, and, on Monday night, rainfall loud enough to force some patrons to turn up their hearing aids. As Pisaroni paid a visit to Beethoven’s “In questa tomba oscura” (In this dark tomb), it was hard not to fear that ashes that quietly begged to be left in peace had in fact been soaked beyond recovery.
The other reason for hearing aid adjustments was Pisaroni’s volume level. Although he has sung Mozart’s Figaro and other roles at the barn-like Metropolitan Opera as well as in San Francisco, Pisaroni performed as if in an intimate space. Only rarely did he boom out, and not with extreme volume. In Pisaroni’s crowning final set of Liszt songs, where Rieger’s rapturous pianism earned equal billing, an audience member on stage right turned up their device so high for several songs that the zingy noise brought to mind music lovers struggling to listen to a solo voice over shortwave receiver interference in the early days of radio.
Pisaroni’s sense of intimacy, however, was but one more of his many achievements. His singing was so graceful and beautiful that, in seven moderately inspired settings from Johann Friedrich Reichardt’s rarely programmed Sonetti e Canzoni di Petrarca (Sonnets and Songs of Petrarch) of 1798, the melodies were so pleasant and tuneful that it was tempting to ignore the words altogether and contentedly bask in the sound.
But then came Pisaroni’s extras. In a program that started somewhat light, with Beethoven and Reichardt, then progressively darkened with Brahms’ Five Songs, Op. 72 and the romantic anguish of Liszt, a wealth of nuance and increasing liberty with tempo and dynamics made for truly distinguished singing. Even in the too facile Reichardt, Pisaroni’s uncommonly natural emphasis on the word “grave” (translated as burdensome) in “O poggi, o valli, o fiumi, o selve” (Oh Hills, O Valleys, O Rivers, O Woods), and his passionate delivery of “Più volte già del bel sembiante umano” (So many times, beholding that fair human countenance) elevated the performance far above the commonplace.
Then came Pisaroni’s extras. In a program that started somewhat light, then progressively darkened, a wealth of nuance and increasing liberty with tempo and dynamics made for truly distinguished singing.
If relatively few of Liszt’s songs, other than the great “O quand je dors” (O when I sleep), are well known, Pisaroni and Rieger did everything in their power to convince us that their neglect is our loss. Rieger’s pianism took on a diaphanous quality in the first song, then emerged with the strength and eloquence of a concert soloist in the long bridges of the final songs. When Pisaroni delightfully dashed to the side during one of the curtain calls to allow Rieger to receive all the applause, the gesture was more than charming — it was called for.
The duo seemed able to change tone and tempo at will. Although sweetness per se was not within Pisaroni’s compass, he could lighten at will. He could also wax dark and bitter in “Anfangs wollt’ ich fast verzagen” (At first I almost lost heart), summon forth anger in “Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen aß” (Who never ate his bread with tears), snarl appropriately in “Die drei Zigeuner” (The three gypsies), and emit perfect diminuendos and crescendos. If his final crescendo on Liszt’s “Der Alpenjäger” (The Alpine Huntsman) was terrific, the manner in which he softened and then boomed out at the end of “Wieder möcht’ ich Dir begegnen” (Once more I would like to greet you” was positively awe-inspiring.
Whether Liszt would have loved so much romantic give and take in his songs — so many changes of tempo and pregnant pauses began to grow a bit wearisome by the end of the set — is subject to question. What was undeniable was that, well before the concert had ended, Pisaroni and Rieger had established themselves as one of the supreme lieder partnerships of the present day. As much as it was difficult to stand and applaud with glee after so much gloom — I almost wish Pisaroni had sung “Three Blind Mice” or “Yankee Doodle Dandy” rather than more longing Liszt for the sole encore — the grateful San Francisco Performances audience made clear that it was ready and eager to stay for more.