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.