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Bryn Brilliant at Tanglewood


Bryn Terfel (Hilary Scott photo)
Bryn Terfel (Hilary Scott photo)

Does any singer make an audience as happy as Bryn Terfel? The beloved Welsh bass-baritone, at the height of his vocal powers, gave an unforgettable recital at Ozawa Hall Thursday night, preceded by a dramatic Berkshires thunder and lightning storm and torrential rain. Nature calmed down by the time Terfel opened his program— after a full two minutes of applause— with songs on poems by John Masefield (1878-1967), poet laureate of England from 1930 until his death in 1967, in a set of three songs by John Ireland (1879-1962) beginning with “Sea Fever,” the familiar text that begins, “I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.” It ends in a whisper. Some overzealous audience member applauded. “That sounded like a bad putt on the golf course,” Bryn, an avid golfer quipped.

“Vagabond” by Ireland gave Terfel a chance to slip into a persona of a simple rover bragging about simple wisdom and the simple life of Ireland. “Dunno a heap about the what an’ why, Can’t say’s I ever knowed.”

The programs with texts and translations were lost goodness—knows—where until the second half, so all a reviewer could do was to listen and watch (a privilege under normal circumstances), and be beguiled by his vocal and acting gifts, matched by his ability to immediately connect with, seduce, and entrance his audience. The warmth of his personality, his Welsh charm, and his irrepressible sense of humor are irresistible. He loves to tell stories, and last night there were plenty of them.

Bryn’s first tales involved his first six years at Guildhall School of Music in London as a young singer who desperately wanted to sing opera. Arthur Reckless was his teacher, and for three years the opera—obsessed Bryn was allowed to sing only English art songs, like the songs from this recital’s first half. Bryn would bring in opera parts, to no avail. “Arthur, I have something from ‘The Messiah.’“ “Oh, where is he?” He recalls, “Arthur loved poems about harbors and what goes on in those harbors.” This led into “Three Salt-Water Ballads” by Frederick Keel (1871-1954), whose highlight, “Mother Carey,” has Terfel warning us to stay clear of this mother of the witches.  “She’s a sight too fond of ships…. You’re young, you thinks… But if you’re to make old bones, Steer clear, I says, of Mother Carey ‘N’ that there Davy Jones.” Terfel makes it seem like singing this program is perhaps even more fun than hearing it. He seem to be having a ball.

Peter Warlock (actually a pseudonym for English-Welsh composer Philip Arnold Heseltine) (1894-1930) was represented by “Captain Stratton’s Fancy,” a sailor’s ode to rum and the tavern, which lurches about with the stumbling rhythm of a drinking song. Terfel did this exuberant, rowdy song justice with a loud hiccup at the end.

Four songs by Roger Quilter (1877-1953) by various poets finished the first set, two of which were ravishing, Tennyson’s sensual “Now sleeps the crimson petal” and Anonymous’s “Weep you no more.”

Both halves were punctuated by tales of Bryn’s two voice teachers; he loved the program featuring his teacher, A. Reckless Baritone.” After he remarked how he was jealous of the acoustics of Ozawa Hall, someone from the back of the hall yelled, “Come more often!” to which he replied without missing a beat, “Okay, I’ll come back Saturday!” (when he sings Wotan in Act III of Die Walküre with the BSO). He told of John Charles Thomas, an opera singer who, to the dismay of all the critics, sang “Home on the Range” as an encore to a serious opera, and of yearning to meet the person who first sang Schubert’s songs.

Four Schumann songs opened the second half, beginning with two well—known ones, “Die Beiden Grenadiere” (text by Heine) and the gorgeous “Widmung,” (text by Frederich Rükert) which Liszt then transcribed into a virtuoso piece. The last, “Mein Wagen rollet langsam,” was originally meant to be part of Dichterliebe, but Schumann decided that with its three goblins, it was a bit too strange for inclusion. The piano here has a huge part, as it did at the end of “Die Beiden Grenadiere.” Both, and everything else on the program, were played to perfection by Natalia Katyulova. Terfel sang “Widmung” eloquently, with his hands folded in front of his waist. Terfel is—or should be— famous for his beautiful German diction.

Schubert, long a Terfel specialty, was represented by “Auf dem Wasser zu singen” (text by Friedrich Leopold, Graf zu Stolberg—Stolberg, 1750-1819), the introspective, moving “Litanei auf das Fest Aller Seelen (text by Johann Georg Jacobi , 1740-1814), and the extremely well—known (because of its use in Schubert’s The Trout Quintet) “Die Forelle,” which found Terfel enjoying himself, acting out its feast of moods. For me, the Schubert set was the highlight of the evening— at least until intermission.

Songs from the Celtic Isles followed. “Danny Boy” (which he sings on YouTube) was sung in a touching, straightforward way, with the final g’s in calling and falling omitted so it sounded folksy (ordinarily his final consonants are as clear as bells). These songs gave him a chance to show off his falsetto, which is heavenly. “All through the Night” was sung, touchingly, in Welsh, and “Loch Lomond” turned into a sing—in, “O ye’ll tak’ the high road and I’ll tak’ the low road And I’ll be in Scotland afore ye”—not my cup of tea, but everyone else seemed happy.

Terfel had a ball with his most unusual encores. He launched into Encore #1 without announcing what it was, but it turns out to be a playful children’s song, “The Green Eyed Dragon with the 13 Tails” (1926) followed by “The Big Brown Bear,” which gave him the opportunity to growl many times, until at the end, “The big brown bear said—” and the pianist uttered a mild, if thoroughly unexpected, “woof.” Finally, in the spirit of the (tasteless? deranged?) opera singer in his earlier story, Terfel sang— yes— “Home on the Range.” But he sang it caressingly, like a lullaby for a beloved child. After enchanting— and seducing— the audience for two hours, he had them join him in the last verse. It felt a little like summer camp, but no one but me seemed to mind.

Bryn has a great collaborator, pianist Natalia Katyukova, whom he should hire for every possible future recital. An assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera and the recipient of many awards (no wonder!), she had many chances, often at the ends of songs, to shine, and shine she did. Her piano playing was simply exquisite, matching each of her mercurial partner’s moods. This was a perfect partnership and a perfectly wonderful concert, a fun break from being Wotan.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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