August 2, 2011
Bryn Terfel, bass-baritone
Brian Zeger, piano
Robert Schumann, Belsazar Liederkreis, Op. 39
Die beiden Grenadiere
Mein Wagen rollet langsam
Gerald Finzi, Let Us Garlands Bring
Jacques Ibert, Chansons de Don Quichotte
I well remember the 1992 Ravinia Festival, when I bought a ticket for the American debut recital of a singer I had read about, a Welsh farmer’s son who was creating a considerable stir in Europe. Although he had made a few recordings, they were not easily accessible in this country, and I came into the concert hall not having heard a single note sung by the then 27 year old Bryn Terfel. The program was simple and serious: Schubert’s Schwanengesang in the first half, and in the second the Op. 39 Liederkreis of Schumann. A huge man with shoulder length blond hair strode on stage followed by his pianist James Levine. The visual effect itself was striking enough—a Viking in full evening dress. I think that my jaw did actually drop at the first line of Liebesbotschaft: “Rauschendes Bächlein so silbern und hell.” The timbre of the voice was absolutely gorgeous and absolutely unique, dark and round and plummy, but with a cut and edge that filled every corner of the theater, the vocal equivalent of Chambertin from a great year. Never had I heard mezza voce singing of such beauty and technical command in these cycles—no question of its being falsetto; at the same time the sheer amplitude of sound in a song like Der Atlas was overpowering. Unique too was the way the voice got around the words. This is a quality that goes beyond German diction (which was perfect), but has to do with how vowels and consonants are formed and their relationship to the rhythmic flow of the music. One of the encores was Schubert’s Litanei, and I recall thinking that there could never have been a more beautiful “ee” vowel in the opening: “Ruh’n in Frieden… .” Welsh songs were among the encores, unknown to the audience, but sung with a melancholy loveliness and unaffected sincerity that had people at the end of the evening on their feet shouting bravo with tears running down their face.
In the intervening years Bryn (and it seems right somehow to refer to him by his first name) has, of course, become a cultural phenomenon. I think it is possible that no male singer since Caruso has been so lionized. This is due not only to his achievements on stage, but to his great-hearted generosity both to the public and to his colleagues. A young artist singing Masetto at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1998 with Bryn as the Don told me that he heard a knock at his dressing room door after the last performance, and was astonished to find that it was Bryn. He had heard that my friend was about to make his Covent Garden debut and wanted to give him some tips about where the best acoustical spots on the stage were.
Because Bryn is so loved personally by all sectors of the musical world he has become largely immune to any negative criticism, when there are, I believe, observations to be made about the current state of his vocalism that one never reads, observations prompted for me by the recital I heard on August 2nd of this year. Some retracing of the history of his career is necessary, which is made easier by his numerous recordings and now many clips on YouTube, which stretch from his performances at the Cardiff competition in 1989 to a complete filming of a version of the program I heard given at the Verbier Festival just last month. I have also had the opportunity to hear him many times both in the concert hall and on the operatic stage over the past nineteen years.
At Cardiff, where Bryn famously placed second after Dmitri Hvorostovsky, one hears a singer still finding his way technically, for example in the Schumann In der Fremde, where he takes the phrase ending in “Waldeinsamkeit” in one breath, but not long enough for this notoriously tricky spot. All the basic elements of the voice are precociously there, but those who know only his later work will be surprised at how much darker the core sound is than what we hear now. This was a bass-baritone with the emphasis decidedly tipping towards bass. No doubt the voice needed to be brought forward, which is a process he began in the early 90’s. By 1994-95 the right balance was achieved, and this period, which extended into the late 90’s, is surely Bryn’s vocal prime. What I consider his greatest recorded legacy came in these years, his first CD of English songs, The Vagabond. (Stephanie Blythe remarked to me once in an interview that this disc had changed her life.) I have a favorite track in it, a short song by John Ireland, also The Vagabond. The combination of tonal splendor and pure innocence in the lines “Dunno about God—he’s jest the noddin’ star/ Atop the windy hill” is immensely touching, and reveals something about the character of Bryn Terfel the man that audiences have responded to at a deep emotional level. Other of Bryn’s best work was done at this time: the Schubert and Schumann CD’s, Mendelssohn’s Elijah (his singing of “For the mountains shall depart” never fails to raise goose-flesh); on the popular side the Rogers and Hammerstein disc.
By the mid-2000’s, however, troubles had begun. The move towards a more forward production continued, hard palate resonance became more apparent, and the voice started to sound thinner and more shallow, sometimes slightly nasal, the juicy deep tone of his early career all but gone. Accompanying this change were definite problems with notes above the staff, which were sung very open, wiry, and raw, with a pronounced beat. The accumulated effects of these developments are heard most clearly in Bryn’s second CD of English songs, Silent Noon, where the top is in ruinous condition, and so congenial a song as Linden Lee cannot be comfortably managed. To my ears, he has continued to struggle with these issues, which made for irony in the recent addition of Wotan to his repertoire, for me an ill-advised if inevitable assumption. At 30 the voice had the right color and weight for this role; at 46 the timbre is by several shades too light.
With this preamble I come to Bryn’s Ravinia recital. The old white tie and tailcoat had been replaced by a black suit and open-collared shirt; the stage manner was also completely relaxed, perhaps in some sense too relaxed, in that his conversational, quasi-parlando way with the more interior songs threatened a lapse into the mode of Frank Sinatra. The fall never quite came, but one constantly felt it might. In the Schumann songs I was also struck by another temptation singers are susceptible to, which is the progressive exaggeration of things they have become famous for, in Bryn’s case his mezza voce and his roaring fortissimo, often violently juxtaposed. What has been technically lost is a basic mezzo forte tone from which these two dynamics can be naturally derived. He began (bravely) in full cry with Belsazar, not only sung, but acted out, which required some effects not marked in the score, e.g. a large ritardando at the phrase “Es klirren die Becher,” so he would have time to raise his arm with an imaginary cup. The entire evening was filled with gestures like this, most irritatingly to me in the exquisite “Mein Wagen rollet langsam,” sung at a relentless forte dynamic, with swaying of the body to coincide with the wagon-motif, and much bug-eyed mugging at the appearance of the phantoms. At least he did not repeat what he apparently did in New York, viz., slowly walk off the stage during the piano postlude. (It is interesting to observe that there are none of these theatrical excesses in the Verbier Festival tape. Perhaps he thinks that Americans need more help understanding the songs than do Europeans.) The Op. 39 Liederkreis had moments of great beauty when the music lay in the middle range, but almost invariably the songs were compromised by coarse sound above the staff, as at the end of Waldesgespräch,or some odd exaggeration of the type that marred Auf einer Burg, a perfect vehicle for Bryn’s mezza voce, reduced almost to inaudibility at the final word “weinet”, the effect then destroyed by a loudly exploded “t”; similarly the last word of Im Walde, where Schumann has written a diminuendo on the second half of “Herzensgrunde”, and Bryn sang the low A about as loudly as he could. Die beiden Grenadiere also suffered all manner of deformation, from the initial plodding tempo to an unauthorized ritardando at the Marseillaise theme, then pounded out to the point of vocal distortion.
The Finzi cycle was least affected by these tendencies, and Bryn’s English diction is indeed a wonder. As he began the Ibert songs I was reminded that they were written for Chaliapin, who might be seen as an artistic forbear: a prodigiously gifted singer and actor who would never allow a composer’s intention to get in the way of what he felt in the music. Having such a small repertoire throughout his concert career must also be a factor in how Bryn now presents his programs. Chestnuts of Schubert and Schumann plus his English specialties have been the core, repeated dozens and dozens of times. The possibility of becoming sloppy or overly inventive is great.
In Brian Zeger Bryn had a willing collaborator whose playing was completely characterless, nothing at all made of the impetuous postlude of Schöne Fremde or the Bach- inspired beginning of Zwielicht. His chief utility was to act as a prompter in the Ibert songs. A shame that Bryn’s long-time colleague Malcolm Martineau could not play for him. He has always been a salutary influence.
Having made these rather harsh judgments I can at the same time say without hesitation that I remain an admirer of Bryn Terfel. It is a very rare gift for a singer to be able to create a bond with the public that transcends how he or she sounds (or chooses to sound) on a given night. I remember well the last recitals of Renata Tebaldi, when she had no more than an octave of serviceable voice. But people came because they loved Renata, and when she sang Non ti scordar di me as a final encore, it might have been 1955 again. There was such a moment in Bryn’s recital, where the encores were devoted to songs associated with John Charles Thomas. One of them was the Welsh song Ar hyd y nos (All Through the Night). Bryn sang it without the slightest gesticulation or vocal mannerism, simply and with great dignity pouring out the beautiful sounds of his native language. I thought of that night almost twenty years ago in the same theater, and became again an audience member on his feet, shouting bravo with tears running down his face.