We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Saturday, October 31, 2015


Piotr Beczala (photo by Johannes Ifkovits)

He dazzled us as Vaudémont in Tchaikovsky's Iolante at the Metropolitan Opera last season and he seemed to dazzle the audience last night at Zankel Hall in his New York recital debut. Sadly, we were not dazzled. There is a great difference between opera and art song. One of the cardinal rules of a song recital is engaging the audience. There are no sets and costumes to help the singer along.

Although this marvelous tenor seemed very much connected to the songs he chose, he failed to connect very well with us and that may be attributed to his use of the music stand for the entire recital, even for the encore. Perhaps he was anxious or too busy to commit the works to memory, but we found the constant glancing down and turning of pages distracting; it left us feeling that we were witnessing a rehearsal, not a performance.

We have lost interest in song recitals held at Stern Auditorium because of the difficulty of achieving intimacy in such a large space; we decided to focus on the vocal series held at Zankel Hall and the even more intimate Weill Recital Hall. At a song recital, we are not at all interested in the fame of the singer; we want to feel what the composer felt when he set the text; we want to feel what the singer feels when he sings it.

That being said, the program was well chosen and we got to hear songs in Polish by a composer with whom we were unfamiliar. Mieczyslaw Karlowicz was a contemporary of Rachmaninoff and his work exhibits the same sort of lush melodic invention. They seemed to us like "popular" music (we mean that in the most positive way) in that they are incredibly accessible. One wants to sing along! But who but a Polish artist could negotiate those mouthfuls of consonants!

The poor composer died young and has yet to achieve great renown abroad. We hope Mr. Beczala's performance will change all that. We want to hear them again.  And yet again. They are romantic in nature and replete with the melancholy so extant in music from Poland, whose history has not been a cheerful one.

Dvorák's Gypsy Songs remain among our favorite song cycles and hearing them in Czech is a special thrill. We recently reviewed such a performance by Jamie Barton whose voice touched our heart and made our feet want to dance. Last night we had no such reaction.  Neither Mr. Beczala nor his collaborative pianist Martin Katz evoked the wild gypsy spirit which can embrace both joyful abandon and deep sorrow.

Sergei Rachmaninoff's songs are always a treat and we got to hear a quartet of them with "Sing not to me, beautiful maiden" (please forgive us for not giving you the Russian!) evoking the deep feeling of estrangement that we identify with "In der fremde" from Schumann's Liederkreis Op. 39. Once, we had this feeling listening to a Bhutanese folksong and inquired about the meaning; yes indeed, it was about a man separated from his family!

The first half of the program was the performance of Schumann's Dichterliebe, Op. 48, a loose chronicle of a love affair gone wrong, for unknown reasons. The songs have great variety of rhythm and dynamics and offer the singer an opportunity to express a variety of moods.

There is a beautiful moment of suspension between the tender opening song "Im wunderschönen Monat Mai" and the following "Aus meinen Tränen spriessen". Mr. Beczala captured the rapturous excitement of "Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, die Sonne" in which the words tumble out right on top of each other.

In terms of vocal production, Mr. Beczala sounded secure in the middle and lower registers but sounded strained in the upper register. His German diction was good enough to be understood but fell short of perfection.

We would like to share our observations about his collaborative pianist Martin Katz. Because we were feeling less than totally involved with the voice, we paid more attention to the piano. We have often experienced Mr. Katz as being heavy handed, having nearly drowned out baritone Jesse Blumberg when they performed Schubert's Winterreise and Die Schöne Müllerin.

Last night his touch was a bit lighter and we could appreciate just how fine a pianist he is. In the ponderous "Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome" he played the Bach-like chorale in a manner that evoked the cathedral in Köln. In "Und wüsten's die Blumen, die kleinen", his piano sang of the poet's agitation while Mr. Beczala sang the descending scale passages.

Similarly, he produced a haunting hurdy-gurdy sound in "Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen". In "Hör ich das Liedchen Klangen", the quiet song grew into grand grief. In "Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen", the piano goes for a false jolly sound while the vocal line expresses suffering. We also enjoyed the harplike arpeggios of "Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen" and "Die alten, bösen Lieder".

As encore, Mr. Beczala made an effort to connect with his American audience by singing the oft recorded "Bless This House", written in 1927 by May Brahe with lyrics by Helen Taylor. It seemed to us a strange choice but the audience seemed to appreciate it.

(c) meche kroop

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