in: Reviews

March 25, 2011

Polenzani Debuts with Boston’s Celebrity Series

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Matthew Polenzani’s collaboration with pianist Julius Drake on Franz Schubert’s Schöne Müllerin on Thursday evening, March 24, in NEC’s Jordan Hall marked the tenor’s debut with the Celebrity Series of Boston. Why did it take so long? Polenzani, a native of Evanston, Illinois, has been a regular with the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and various other distinguished companies and ensembles throughout the United States and Europe. It seemed more than appropriate the tenor should finally be gracing Boston’s Celebrity Series

And what an excellent choice to begin with: Schubert song cycles are somehow starkly intimate. Set for small spaces (maybe even Jordan Hall was too large?) a piano and voice are showcased as equal partners, exploring a spare sound world, illustrating natural and psychological phenomena with the limited set of colors the two instruments can provide.

While the temptation is to treat the music as overly fragile, I appreciated Polenzani and Drake’s forceful approach. The collaboration resulted in a sensible, yet powerful reading of Schubert’s work. Polenzani’s voice seems inconceivably limber, featuring a rich, lyrical tone that displays exquisite control in the higher registers. Faster works, particularly in the notoriously clipped Ungeduld, or the Mein!, revealed a remarkable facility with phrasing while maintaining an appropriately tempered lyricism in the higher register (I hate to note, but should, that Polenzani’s lower register seemed uncharacteristically thin in the latter — a theme that continued throughout the song cycle). The intervening triptych of songs (Morgengruss, Des Müllers Blumen and Tränenregen) displayed another seemingly unrelated side to Polenzani’s versatile instrument: a rich, yet sensitive tone that accommodated his upper register without torturing the melodic line with bravado.

I’d be missing the point if I ignored Drake’s contributions to Thursday evening’s performance. Supporting the voice is one role for the pianist in Schubertlieder, but Drake’s ability to become a character in the drama (again, Mein! — an argument between protagonist and a brook — comes to mind, or the role of the protagonist’s competing hunter in Der Jäger) achieved something more meaningful than mere accompaniment. More than that, however, Drake’s work bore an intangible thumbprint of accomplishment: there’s a deep talent in the pianist who can make that persistent repeated note in Die liebe Farbe interesting.

What surprises me most is how a Schubert song cycle can rouse an audience to immediate ovation. Larger works, like Mahler 2 or Beethoven 9, incorporating choir and full orchestra, guarantee this. But Schubert’s work is embarrassingly simple in comparison: parlor music for solo voice and piano. Yet even as the final note was receding, precocious applause interrupted the evening’s work (if only I were young enough — or old enough, for that matter — to shush people in an audience). After two bows, Polenzani greeted the audience with the dilemma he and Drake had discussed, as to “whether or not you can sing anything after that.” As it turns out, no one else but Schubert will do: the duo closed Thursday evening’s concert with Schubert’s Im Abendrot (D 799) as an encore — a thoughtful end to a brilliant debut by Matthew Polenzani.

Sudeep Agarwala is a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He performs with various choral groups throughout Boston and Cambridge.

4 Comments

  1. I did not enjoy this performance as much as the reviewer.

    Polenzani displayed a large, powerful voice, but his interpretation lacked beauty, surely an essential element of this cycle. It was the polar opposite of the plangent Fritz Wunderlich recording with Hubert Giesen, as well as my favorite version by Aksel Schiotz and Gerald Moore, which contains both beauty and strength.

    Comment by Allan Kohrman — March 25, 2011 at 9:12 pm

  2. For the record, the title of the encore song is Im Abendrot (D799; text by Karl Lappe).

    Comment by Virginia Newes — March 26, 2011 at 8:58 am

  3. I hesitate to offer a correction, lest I be wrong myself, but I do believe the encore was “Im Abendrot.” I don’t believe Schubert wrote a song entitled “Im Abendlied.”

    Comment by John P — March 26, 2011 at 10:21 am

  4. I’d have to chime in on the side of enjoying a memorable performance.

    Mr. Polenzani may not quite have the pure, ravishing tonal beauty of a Wunderlich (who indeed does?), but I value Polenzani’s stronger ability to vary the tone of his beautifully produced voice to suit the dramatic ends of the text. Some of the inflections are obvious, such as the modulation of the voice to elicit the characters of the Miller, the Miller’s Daughter, and the Brook with a few deft strokes, but there’s also his marvelous ability to use subtle modulations to depict the hapless narrator’s varying moods of rapture, jealousy and pride (particular kudos for the quicksilver shifts of mood of “Eifersucht und Stolz”), hatred, and despair.

    Polenzani may have started a little vocally out of sorts, perhaps in the wake of flubbing the words of the opening stanza of “Das Wandern” (the kind of stumble that any singer lives in dread of), but I’d say that he recovered his footing by the “Danksagung an den Bach,” demonstrating cunning use of a wide dynamic range and beautiful consistency of voice from top to bottom register, with only a few cracks in some moments that seemed to elicit the narrator’s impending emotional breakdown, and a peculiarly unmatched “e” vowel in the high and mid-range “ewig”‘s of “Ungeduld.” But alongside the flubs that come with a live performance, there were also gorgeous shimmering high pianissimos in “Danksagung an den Bach,” the second statement of “Soll es das Vorspiel neuer Lieder sein?” in “Pause;” and a mesmerizing “Des Baches Wiegenlied.” If this live performance is not quite as exquisite as the studio recording of Aksel Schiøtz and Gerald Moore, there was still plenty to hear and admire.

    At least as admirable was Julius Drake’s contribution as pianist. I think Drake is very much a pianist in the Gerald Moore mold, managing to find all manner of subtle detail with careful weighting of the voices, and shading and shaping without ever overpowering his singer. One of the challenges of Die schöne Müllerin is managing to get through the large number of strophic songs (where the same tune sets three, four, or five stanzas of text) without lapsing over into boredom. Drake met this challenge masterfully, by adopting super-smooth playing to depict water and percussive bass notes to accompany the stones of “Das Wandern;” pausing just a bit longer than the music calls for in “Der Neugierige” to summon the idea of a question being asked; taking the piano part up an octave in the third strophe of “Des Müllers Blumen” as the maiden “sleeps in sweet, sweet repose;” bringing out the left hand again in the third strophe of “Tränenregen” to depict the lure of the brook’s depths; giving that pulsing repeated note of “Die liebe Farbe” just enough variation to suggest the pathology of obsession; weighting the tenor voice to suggest the hunting horn’s ringing fifths in “Der Jäger,” “Die liebe Farbe,” and “Des Baches Wiegenlied.”

    Together, Polenzani and Drake made an ideal pairing, responding to each other and playing off of each other not as singer and accompanist but as two partners going on the journey together, thrillingly fast in “Ungeduld” and “Mein!” heartbreaking in “Des Baches Wiegenlied,” and making the slow burn crescendo of “Trockne Blumen” into a tremendous moment.

    It’s a tough decision whether to offer an encore after such an extraordinary piece, but it’s possible that the singing and playing of “Im Abendrot” was even more exquisite than in the cycle. The pair repeat the program in Philadelphia, Eastern Illinois, and New York. If you have the chance, don’t miss it!

    Comment by James Liu — March 27, 2011 at 6:51 pm

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