|Renate Rohlfing and Samuel Hasselhorn|
To the casual audience member, last night's recital at the acoustically excellent and comfortable Merkin Concert Hall must have appeared relaxed and effortless. To those of us who have studied voice, it was obvious that a great deal of labor was performed behind the scenes, and for long years, to have produced such a recital of unsurpassed excellence. There are a few singers who have astonished us upon first hearing (and we do believe our reaction was not kept secret!) and whose careers have taken off like a jumbo jet.
Of course, German baritone Samuel Hasselhorn is already well on his way, garnering prizes from several esteemed foundations. This debut tour in the USA was the result of his winning First Prize at the 2015 Young Concert Artists International Auditions and it is to this organization that we owe our thanks for a spellbinding evening. We abstained from reading his bio until after the recital but were not surprised to learn of his awards, his recording, nor of his appearances on the opera stage.
There is very little one can say about a voice that is so well trained and flawless in its diction, phrasing, timbre, and color. But there is a great deal that can be said about an artist that lives every song he sings. We have no doubt that Mr. Hasselhorn designed his program very carefully and included only songs that he truly cared about. There was no filler; there were no attempts to include a dozen languages to show off linguistic ability or a wide range of periods to show off facility with varying styles.
Let us share a very personal reaction we had during the recital. The walls of the hall vanished and we felt as if we were a child being told some bedtime stories by a highly indulgent grandfather who had lived a life in the theater. He told us sad stories and happy ones. He told us scary stories and supernatural ones. He related tales of love both sanguine and fatal. He told of heroism and patriotism. He told us a tall tale about a gigantic crocodile. "More, Pop-Pop, more", we begged. Grandfather indulged us.
After all those tales, there would be only one more--an encore summing up of the recital--Schubert's magnificent tribute to the art form that means so much to us--"An die Musik", the most sacred of the arts.
Pardon us our flight of fantasy but we found the entire recital to be spell-binding. However, to restore our reviewer's hat to our bewitched head, let us just point out a few notable elements. Mr. Hasselhorn included a set of folk songs by Britten in which the clarity of his enunciation allowed us to comprehend every word; this rarely happens with a native English speaker. The songs themselves are charming and the artist performed them with the warmth and personality such folk songs require. There was no whiff of the "artsy-fartsy".
A set of songs by Francis Poulenc were offered in finely phrased French--anti-war sentiment delivered with style and wit overlaying the pain.
Two intense songs showed Mr. Hasselhorn's dramatic ability. We always love Schubert's "Erlkonig" since it gives the singer an opportunity to color his voice differentially for the narrator, the reassuring father, the frightened child, and the seductive Erl-king. Mr. Hasselhorn made the most of it with well placed pauses providing additional suspense.
Hugo Wolf's setting of Morike's "Der Feuerreiter" also offers ample opportunity for drama and suspense. Mr. Hasselhorn's performance was so powerful that it prompted some online research into the role of the "fire rider". Apparently, as we learned, the subject of the poem did NOT go around setting fires as we formerly believed. He was a man with a unique ability to anticipate and detect fires and, in this case, he tried to use magic to quell the fire; using magic was a sacrilege so he lost his life in the fire. But, at the conclusion of the poem, his soul is redeemed and put to rest. This is a brief summary of what we learned but we hope it will suffice.
There was a marvelous set of songs by Robert Schumann of which our favorite was the familiar "Du bist wie eine Blume" which showed off the singer's tender side, as did Franz Schubert's tranquil "Litanei auf das Fest Allerseelen".
In Renate Rohlfing, Mr. Hasselhorn has found a worthy accompanist who matched him mood for mood. Since we always need to find some tiny quibble, let us just say that at the beginning of "Der Feuerreiter", she nearly drowned hm out. If I'd told you, dear reader, that the recital was perfect, you wouldn't have believed me. Now you do!
If you are as excited to hear Mr. Hasselhorn again as we are, we expect that the German Forum, one of our favorite organizations, will invite him here next year. We will keep you informed about this exciting young artist.
(c) meche kroop