Saturday, May 8, 2010

Alone in the dark with Thomas Quasthoff

I'm late with my review of Thomas Quastoff (at left); can it really be that the great bass-baritone sang for Celebrity Series a whole week ago? (Yes, it can.) I think I've been dragging my feet about this one, however, because for once I'm not really sure what to make of it. There was little to fault in Quasthoff's program, which only occasionally delved into chestnuts like Schubert's “Erlkönig." Indeed, Quasthoff devoted the central portion of the concert to Swiss composer Frank Martin's dense, challenging “Sechs Monologe aus Jedermann," and closed with several somber songs from Brahms (from the late Op. 94 and the very late Op. 121, written as the great composer succumbed to cancer).

You couldn't ask for a more serious program - in fact, that last Brahms opus is named "Four Serious Songs" - and Mr. Quasthoff's selections, which dwelt on isolation, suffering, and the question of spiritual salvation, seemed to resonate with his own personal circumstances. The singer, of course, has triumphed over intense physical challenges, and it was hard not to hear an echo of that struggle in the first song of his set, Schubert's roiling "Prometheus," in which the fallen hero proclaims:

Who helped me
Against the pride of the titans?
Who rescued me from death,
From slavery?
Did you not accomplish it all yourself,
My sacred, glowing heart? . . .

Here I will sit, forming men
After my own image,
It will be a race like me,
To suffer, to weep,
To enjoy and to rejoice,
And to pay no attention to you,
As I do!

Details of the singer's biography were unmistakable here (Quasthoff even sings sitting down), which poses an interesting problem for a reviewer (or at least a sensitive reviewer). Quasthoff's career depends, of course, on the civilizing truth that in music, the physical is transcended, and I feel uncomfortable even discussing his personal challenges - except insofar as they touch on a theme of isolated struggle that ran relentlessly through the concert, along with a certain attitude of defiance. It was hard to shake the impression that, while many of the singer's fans may find in their very enthusiasm for him a comforting balm to their own beneficent egos, the man himself was there to shake them out of that happy impression. To be blunt, while most singers attempt to connect with the audience across the proscenium, you could feel Quasthoff holding back - and for thematic reasons. We are all alone, he essentially sang over and over, and each of us is in a separate, private hell.

Applause somehow seems ridiculous before this kind of grave statement, and yet it's impossible not to applaud Quasthoff's singing. He does have one of the great bass-baritones of our age, with a clarion, burnished top and a bottom that's clear even at oceanic depths. The singer also has considerable power; he can both rumble and blast at will. What's more, Quasthoff's intellect is obviously far more formidable than many a vocal star's; his selections, as I said, were almost prickly in their brooding braininess, and his approach was thoughtful to the point of being over-considered.

Still, it must be said that Quasthoff occasionally seems to not so much hit his pitches as find them (although this tendency may have been exacerbated by his consistently deliberate pacing). Likewise pianist Justus Zeyen, though certainly a sympathetic accompanist, seemed to fudge his playing here and there (the demonic rippling of “Erlkönig," for instance, was a dramatic, but staccato, blur). And then there was the banter - a lot of it, and some of it amusing, but a little rude ("Shit happens!"), some of it tinged with a hint of sourness, and some of it directly peremptory (Quasthoff demanded the audience not cough even between songs). The eventual impression was of a self-serious profundity unaware of its own slips into vulgarity.

But in my book, if you've got the goods, the rest is forgotten, and Quasthoff certainly has the goods. And the whole concert was hardly doom and gloom: Quasthoff essayed a gentle melancholy in Schubert's “Im Frühling,” and his Erl-king had a truly scary intensity. And I was grateful to be introduced to Martin's troubling “Sechs Monologe aus Jedermann," (that's "Six monologues from Everyman" - I hope everyone in the audience knew what "Jedermann" means), which made the frightening most of Hugo von Hofmannsthal's brilliant text; rarely in music has the terrible moral meaning of the approach of death been so unsparingly portrayed. And though Quasthoff had a few problems with the high end of the final set from Brahms, over all his handling of these heartbreaking, yet subtle, pieces was exquisite. The three encores - “Auf dem Kirchhofe’’ (the cemetery) and “Unüberwindlich’’ (the bottle) by Brahms, and “Seligkeit’’ by Schubert (the afterlife) - were a maybe little lighter than what had come before, but not much. Then again, in a world of singers almost too eager to please their audiences, perhaps Thomas Quasthoff's dark vision counts as something of a tonic.