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Towering in Every Aspect

April 22, 2008

Bryn Terfel sure knows how to work a crowd. After his rendition of Roger Quilter's Go, Lovely Rose left adoring attendees at his Cal Performances recital in profound silence, he smiled and said, "You're a fabulous audience. You can breathe, you know."
Such a winking acknowledgment of his impact was only part of the shtick. When the six-foot-three, former rugby player first took to the stage of Zellerbach Hall Thursday night, he quipped, "I apologize if I walk funny, because Falstaff is still with me." After sticking out his belly to imitate Sir John, he dedicated the first half of his program, a generous helping of English song, to his teacher, "A. Reckless, baritone." The warm laughter that greeted his spiel could have melted the frost on the Thames.

But just in case there were any hard-hearted naysayers (or clueless critics) left by recital's end, he jumped off the stage at the start of his first encore, Deh, vieni alla finestra (Don Giovanni's serenade), sauntered down the aisle, and proceeded to serenade several audience members in polygamous fashion. Then came the final encore, Bazel Androzzo's If I Can Help Somebody (with the lyric "If I can help somebody as I pass along, then my living shall not be in vain"), delivered with all the generosity of tone and perfectly gauged sentimentality to leave you feeling that you had just encountered the Salvation Army's most prized bell-ringer. What a grand bloke he is!
Absolute Command
The encores capped a generous recital that began and ended with the repertoire Terfel performed best: English and, in one case, Welsh song. The opening three works, by John Ireland, immediately established an air of masculine authority. Sung with impeccable diction, Sea Fever gave us the voice of the archetypical seaman, and The Vagabond featured convincingly plebeian speech and a bit of the lovely half voice that would only improve throughout the evening.

The Bells of San Marie confirmed Terfel's ability to mix occasional touches of sentimentality with finely spun sound. By the conclusion of Peter Warlock's Captain Stratton's Fancy, in which a judicious dousing of alcoholic swagger included a few well-placed growls, it was impossible to imagine any singer, whether present or past, performing Terfel's maritime repertoire more convincingly.

As Terfel sailed through Frederick Keel's Three Salt-Water Ballads, my appreciation for his declamatory delivery grew. The distance from Keel's Port of Many Ships to Rodgers and Hammerstein's My Boy Bill soliloquy from Carousel seemed but a short skip across the salty sea. No wonder, because at the last Terfel recital I attended in Zellerbach many years ago, the music that most impressed was from Broadway rather than 19th-century Germany.

This is not to say that every English song that our boy Bryn performed was equally convincing. Despite a lovely, soft falsetto ending, his rendition of Vaughan Williams' Silent Noon was too grand to convince. (By all means, check out the sacred silence that the great Kathleen Ferrier bestowed upon this short masterpiece.) But the lovely stillness at the end of Roger Quilter's Weep You No More, the profundity of Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, and the declamatory tone worthy of Sir John himself in Fair House of Joy were nothing short of magnificent.

Equally magnificent was Malcolm Martineau's accompaniment; always in synch with Terfel, his challenging rapid arpeggios flowed like water and his tone was always apt. If ever a pianist could make a singer feel supported and mirrored without being upstaged, it is Martineau.
On Shakier Ground
Beginning with Handel (even after intermission) may be a standard programming choice, but Bryn Terfel's coloratura facility is less than commanding. Most curious was the final phrase of Sì, tra I ceppi (Yes, among the stumps), which he declaimed like a sea captain. Although Mozart's Io ti lascio, o cara, addio (I leave you, my dear, farewell) was light years ahead stylistically, and ended with a fade to silence that Martineau held marvelously, a declamatory style again intruded into Terfel's four Schubert lieder.

There, the contrast between how Terfel now sings Schubert and how he performed three of the songs — Heidenröslein (Rose blossom on the heath), Litanei (Litany), and An Silvia (Who is Sylvia?) — on his award-winning 1994 Schubert recital with Martineau (DG) was profound. The voice today is just as beautiful, and the charm and half voice are equally beguiling, but key words and phrases that before were impeccably sung are now occasionally voiced in an obtrusive, declamatory style in which sharp beginnings and straight tone interrupt the flow of the vocal line.

Liebesbotschaft (Love's message) suffered most — the murmuring brook and whispered dreams that Elly Ameling and Elisabeth Schumann captured so well were far too grand. Granted, Zellerbach is a far bigger space than Schubert performed in, but it does not require Sir John Falstaff to put a song across.
Forget France — Let's Head to the Celtic Homeland
Although his current approach, in which restraint often cedes to big, was unsuited to Fauré, the opening lines of Le Secret demonstrated that Terfel can still sing a melting legato when he puts his mind to it. Unsurprisingly, the grand, emotional conclusion to Fleur Jetée (Discarded flower) fared best.

Best to return to the land of Loch Lomond, Danny Boy, and Molly Malone. The last, sung with the help of a standing audience, capped the recital. Fabulous.

Few artists can create such a familial, down-home atmosphere as Terfel can. If the man ever decides to become a barker at county fairs and carnivals, I'll bet he could set a world record for the number of stuffed animals and candied apples sold. Perhaps someday he will follow in Ezio Pinza's footsteps. Then, we could all sing together, from Dublin's fair city to Broadway so pretty, there's nary a singer as super as Bryn.

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.