Sunday, March 27, 2011

The tenor's tenor

Matthew Polenzani
Gazing around at a half-filled Jordan Hall before Matthew Polenzani's Celebrity Series concert last week, I had the same thought that I had at the similar turnout for Christine Brewer:

In so many ways, this is still such a hick town!

Oh, well, be that as it may; at least the assembled crowd was a passionate one.  They knew that Polenzani was dropping by early in what promises to be a high-flying career, and we were lucky to hear him in such intimate circumstances.  Already he's a staple at the Met, and the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and LA Opera, and has made his debut at many of the major European houses, too.

It was surprising, then, that his program proved so serious and unassuming - Schubert's great song cycle, Die schöne Müllerin (or "The Lovely Miller's Daughter"). It's unusual to hear the whole of the cycle in a major recital, which is unfortunate, as the songs are transporting, and of immense historical significance (they're the first cycle to become part of the standard repertoire) - even if, inevitably, they're conceived at the scale of chamber, rather than symphonic, music. Polenzani (at left) hewed closely and carefully to that intimate profile, however; there was no showboating or barnstorming in his emotionally transparent performance. If Dmitri Hvorostovky gave us the baritone as rock star just a few weeks ago, then Matthew Polenzani gave us the lyric tenor as - well, as lyric tenor.  Remember them?

And needless to say, Polenzani proved a very fine lyric tenor indeed.  To be honest, his lower notes are fine, but unremarkable - it's at about a third of the way up his register that his voice suddenly opens up  into a warm glory with a kind of floating, flexible glow; and it stays that way - light yet rich, effortlessly saturated and supple - to nearly the top of his range.  Polenzani rarely seemed to push anything in technical terms; you never felt an ounce of strain in the performance (in fact he didn't even have any water with him onstage, as recitalists often do).  He simply has this kind of vocal radiance he can unleash at will.

His pianist, Julius Drake, proved likewise an exquisitely talented find.  It would be wrong to call him an "accompanist," at least in the case of Die schöne Müllerin, for in Schubert's conception the piano really serves as partner an ongoing duet; it's a character, indeed for all intents and purposes another voice. And you could feel between Drake and Polenzani the kind of subtle, supportive attentiveness you only get between two artists for whom familiarity has bred respect rather than contempt.

Still, for all the musical glory that was evident in this double performance, the emotional depths of Die schöne Müllerin were never fully plumbed. Schubert's songs follow a (seemingly) happy-go-lucky wanderer whose best friend is a babbling brook - eloquently voiced in the piano part - which leads him to that eponymous mill, and that lovely miller's daughter. The cycle, of course, then becomes an extended love-song - at first dappled with romantic sun, a mode in which Polenzani excels; eventually, however, it devolves into a song of love won, then lost. And once lost, that love draws the singer into an obsessive, melancholic undertow, which Polenzani was able to express, but not embody; we never felt any sense of real neurosis (much less death-wish) in his performance.  In short, he's a better singer than he is an actor.  Not that Die schöne Müllerin is quite the twin of Schubert's tormented Winterreise (even though the same poet, Wilhelm Müller, is the source of both) - still, it concludes with a tragic transfiguration: the singer ends up at the bottom of that babbling brook, finally at peace, dreaming along to the eternal lullaby he loved so well.  Charmingly modest as he was, Polenzani never gave us the completion of that terrible arc; although it's clear that once he has found the emotional path to that dark place, he has the voice to carry him there.

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