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Profundity, Punditry Pervade Quasthoff Recital


German bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff and pianist Justus Zeyen offered a rich recital of Brahms, Schubert, and Frank Martin vocal works at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall Sunday afternoon May 2nd.  The Celebrity Series of Boston presented the concert.

By now there is no real disagreement about the artistry that Thomas Quasthoff brings to all of his singing.  All the world is his stage these days.  Abbado, Levine and Rattle want him for their concerts, and he garners paeans of praise from the music critics across the globe who hear him.  Thus there was great anticipation within Jordan Hall before Quasthoff and his comradely accompanist Justus Zeyen emerged from the stage door to begin their “journey,” as Quasthoff described it in a short speech before he began to sing.  That speech, plus several other “entre-nous” moments of palaver with the audience served as an intriguing window into this artist’s complicated and focused psyche, but I’m not so sure that these extras-musical moments helped elevate the proceedings.  More about that later.

Quasthoff began his “journey” with four Schubert songs, and the singer’s choice of Lieder was as interesting as his interpretations.  Three of the four were set to the verse of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the first being “Prometheus,” D. 674, in which the protagonist shakes an angry fist at Zeus and the other gods for the grim lot they have dealt him.  This song is a daringly deep work with which to open a recital.  Immediately apparent were Quasthoff’s considerable gifts of language enunciation and his embodiment of the “speaker’s” emotions.

Quasthoff has obviously carefully considered this song, and indeed, it was apparent throughout the afternoon that he had examined everything he sang with an analyst’s eye for detail and nuance.

He likely first looks at the overall work, what it’s about, what its inherent emotions may be, how the poetry is set by the composer, how the accompaniment may underscore, or not, the poetry’s “meaning,” a myriad of early “surface” examinations.  Next, delving deeper, he would appear to think about each individual phrase of the song, how it might begin and end, what it’s emotional or musical highpoint or highpoints may be, what kind of breath may be required to sing the phrase through, where the phrase might be meaningfully interrupted by a breath, and so many other considerations.  Then, after all of this is scrutinized and made part of the entire equation, he looks for the key word or words within each phrase, the word(s) which contain the essence of the poetry’s meaning or emotional core, and how that word has been set by the composer.  He then contemplates which particular vocal color might be applied to that word that most completely communicates its essence.  He does all this, I’m convinced, before he even begins his first traversal of the song with his pianist.

Quasthoff’s desire to delve deep as this into his music and music making is a tribute to his intellectual curiosity as well as his musical honesty.  Both abet his almost uncanny talent to communicate with a receptive and thoughtful listener.

Throughout “Prometheus” there was never a doubt, in Quasthoff’s searing interpretation, of the anger the protagonist feels towards the gods.  At the song’s very end, the words “wie Ich!” are sung.  Quasthoff’s pronunciation of that final German ch was heard as an elongated hiss, a wonderful effect, clearly expressing utter contempt.

“Grenzen der Menschheit,” D. 716, continued the extraordinary exposition of text by the singer, whose deep and resonant tones filled out and potently described “Mit gelassener Hand/Aus rollenden Wolken/Segnende Blitze/Über die Erde sät.” (With calm hand/From the rolling clouds/Sends blessed lightning/Over the earth.”  This resonance was then contrasted with the most elegant legato brought to a following phrase that describes the smooth seam of God’s cloak.  One was reminded of how Goethe’s ever-philosophical words often are a perfect match to Schubert’s extraordinary music.

Drama abounded in “Erlkönig,” D. 328, the harrowing tale of a horseman and his young son held in the rider’s arms as they gallop through a stormy night, haunted by a ghostly long-tailed and crowned spirit, the Erl-king.  Quasthoff embodied the three “actors” of this drama, singing the father’s verses with steadfast assurance.  The child’s fearful concerns were sung with uplifted eyes as if the child were looking up to his father as his terror of the Erl-king was manifested.  And as the Erl-king himself, Quasthoff summoned up a truly menacing persona.  Throughout the wild ride, pianist Justus Zeyen was a dramatically accurate and literate portraitist.  The power of this interpretation, in which every word was freighted with drama, overwhelmed.

The ensuing “Im Frühling,” D. 882, was notable for its calm and serenity, with Zeyen a particularly sensitive accompanist, dispensing jewel-like and pearly tone as Quasthoff softly sang of nature’s benign wild creatures and the pangs of love, past joy, and memory.

Following the Schubert songs, Quasthoff programmed a 20th-century masterwork:  “Six Monologues from ‘Jedermann’” by the Swiss/French composer Frank Martin.  Stemming from 1943-4/1949, this cycle portrays a man enamored at first of riches, then, as his profligate life progresses, realizes that life should offer more than mere material wealth, and ultimately embraces God as his true treasure.  Quasthoff believes in this music, and spent a bit of time explaining Martin’s lamentable under-appreciation, and mentioning that the composer’s Requiem and Golgotha oratorio were true masterpieces.  He then began to sing, and what and how he sang was the highlight of the recital.

It would be hard to imagine a more deeply thought performance of music that haunts the memory with its plangent harmonic language and powerful, strongly chordal structure.  Again, Quasthoff’s searching intellect was perfectly matched to his texts.  I look at my program book today and I see that I had stopped taking notes, and had began to circle individual words which the singer invested with special color and nuance.  Almost every third of fourth word is circled.  Q.E.D..

After intermission, Quasthoff returned with Brahms exclusively, but before he began to sing, he made two requests:

1. No text-messaging

2.  Suppress the hearing-aid squeal

I had heard the annoying hearing aid problem earlier, but I honestly couldn’t imagine any serious vocal recital attendee text-messaging during the music.  Shortly after Quasthoff began to sing, my disbelief was destroyed by an elderly gentleman two rows in front of me who had brought out his PDA, and not 20 feet away from Quasthoff, was staring at its illuminated screen!

Perhaps it was this event that slightly dulled my appreciation of the Brahms being put forth from the stage, though the fourth song of the op. 94 Five Songs made a bewitching impression – the gorgeous “Sapphische Ode,” in which are referenced the fragrance of rose petals, dew shed from branches moved by the wind, and tears shed from a lover’s eyes.  All had telling effect, and once again Zeyen’s sensitive accompaniment fully complemented.

After the applause accorded the Brahms op. 94, Quasthoff asked the audience if it would “do something together” with him.  There had been several tubercular eruptions between each of the songs, and the singer asked that this extra-musical intrusion be suppressed.  Lightening the mood, he characterized these as “lung clinic” interruptions.  He went on to say that he held the next music, Brahms’ Four Serious Songs, op. 121 in the highest esteem, that they were indeed about death, but there really was no need to emphasize that fact by death rattles emitted from the audience.  The good-natured audience complied – not one cough was heard between the songs.

After a minimum of enthusiastic encouragement, Quasthoff offered three encores – Brahms:  “Auf dem Kirchhofe,” op. 105, Schubert:  “Seligkeit,” and Brahms:  “Unüberwindlich.”  He was stopped by a catch in his throat at the beginning of “Seligkeit” – here is what he said:  “There was a frog…Shit happens!” (much audience laughter)  ”Thank God at the end of the concert!  HE (looking at Zeyen) was perfect!  OK, frog is gone.”  Having said this, “Seligkeit” gave him a bit of trouble with its occasional high notes.  But the fully pantomimed and almost “mugged” “Unüberwindlich,” which Quasthoff told us was about an alcoholic’s wish to be spared his addiction, and his ultimate failure to achieve this, was hugely enjoyed.  This ended the recital.  But…

Am I hopelessly old-fashioned?  I fully appreciate an artist’s wish to be involved with his audience, but I wonder – was I the only one in Jordan Hall that afternoon who was a bit put off by the palsy-walsy bantering from the stage?  It seemed a bit of a philosophical dissonance to interrupt a program of such gorgeous music by so much distracting talk.  Yet, audiences SHOULD be educated about stifling coughing at concerts.  Too bad it falls to the artist on-stage to do the educating.  It breaks the mood, and in Quasthoff’s case in particular, the mood he creates is so completely compelling.

A few further thoughts:

Pianist and singer provided an amusing and strong visual contrast.  Zeyen is quite tall and lean, Quasthoff quite short and stout – an explanation point and a period, if you will.  And yet both are in complete sync and sympathy with one another, hand-in-glove artistically.

This was ultimately a heartfelt, moving and memorable recital, my few qualms aside.  Quasthoff brings with him a very large toolbox, and he uses all of the tools in that box – falsetto, mezza-voce, gorgeous legato, etc., etc. to great effect.  He has obviously thought through each and every word of each song and planned in advance how to sing that word so as to best reveal its emotional totality.  Quasthoff is a deep-thinking singer, performing on a very high intellectual plane.  Thank goodness we have him with us.  May he and Zeyen return soon!

P.S.:  Any true Quasthoff fan must acquire and read the singer’s autobiography The Voice: A Memoir. It is a great help in understanding the singer’s unique sense of humor and his “take” on his worldly existence.

John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 29 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 30 years.

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