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.

Sunday, February 24, 2019


Kathleen O'Mara, Marie Engle, Megan Esther Grey, Jennifer Johnson Cano, and Matthew Polenzani
Julius Drake and Matthew Polenzani
Matthew Polenzani is a beloved tenor, well known to those who frequent The Metropolitan Opera. Perhaps there is no tenor in his generation who can fill the Metropolitan Opera with so much beautiful sound. But do all of our readers know what a superb recitalist he is?

It is a special thrill to experience his artistry in a smaller house.  It has been four years since we heard his recital at Alice Tully Hall and six years since his recital at the Morgan Library as part of the George London Foundation recital series--a return which celebrated his 1998 award.

Yesterday's recital at Zankel Hall was even more intimate and we appreciated 
Mr. Polenzani's generous Italianate tone in both German and Czech; it is replete with resonance and his diction, thankfully, makes every word count. Still, the house lights were kept at a level that permitted those who do not understand foreign languages to read the translations.

The sound is huge and operatic when passionate intensity is called for-- but our preference was for the tender passages in which he mined great depth of feeling at even the most pianissimo level of dynamics.

Accompanied by the fine pianist Julius Drake, he opened his program with a half dozen Schubert lieder. He and Mr. Drake make a fine partnership since Mr. Drake's sensitive playing is never short of supportive. In the slow and melancholy "Nachtstück", the old man's harp was recreated by Mr. Drake's delicate arpeggi; Mr. Polenzani colored every word for maximum meaning.

In "Im Frühling", our personal favorite, the singer waxes nostalgic for happier days and Mr. Polenzani trailed off in a delicate decrescendo at the end. Schubert's brief interpolation of the minor key was well negotiated for maximum emotional effect. "Der Einsame" is a song of contentment and we have always called it "the cricket song" since the pianist gets to simulate their sound.

We haven't heard "Ständchen" so tenderly performed since we heard Paul Appleby sing it in Santa Fe. What an affecting performance with the tenderness yielding to passionate intensity!

Beethoven's song cycle An die ferne Geliebte is marked by a smooth segué between songs, creating a sustained mood. Alois Jeitteles' text uses imagery taken from the natural world to express longing for the beloved. Our favorite part is in "Wo die Berge so blau" when the piano echoes the unforgettable downward scale passage "Schauen herein" as it does in the subsequent "Möchte ich sein" and "Innere Pein" (now in a minor key) and "Ewiglich sein". That motif pulls on the heart as only Beethoven's can do.

The bittersweet "Es kehret der Maien" opens with a lilting piano that shows us an aural picture of birds and babbling brooks. The cheerful mood dissipates in the last two verses but acceptance is achieved in the final song "Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder". That sounds like a good life lesson; when you can't fulfill your longings, accept it gracefully.

Of Brahms' Zigeunerlieder, beautifully sung by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, our favorite was "Brauner Bursche fürht zum Tanze" with its spirited rhythm. This took Ms. Johnson Cano into some lower register territory which she negotiated without strain. Her performances always delight us.

The second half of the program was devoted to Leoś Janáček's song cycle The Diary of One Who Disappeared. There is an interesting story about the text by Josef Kalda; in an elaborate hoax, which will resonate to those of our generation, the work was presented in 1916 in a Brno newspapers as "From the Pen of a Self-Taught Peasant", claimed to have been written by a farmboy who had mysteriously disappeared, leaving behind a story of having been seduced by a gypsy girl who bore his child, and then running off with her and her gypsy family.

This is not so different from "Songs of Bilitis" which were given a false origin as well.  And what about films that are purported to be "found footage"? Today we are accustomed to such pranks but we wonder if people of a century ago would have been enraged over the deception. Fortunately, they never found out because the hoax went unrevealed until 1998!

In any case, the work is an interesting one and Janáček's passionate outpouring of music expressed his unfulfilled longing for a much younger married woman. Czech is such a difficult language and it is impressive how well the composer matches its rhythms in his music. We notice that the lines of text are short. 

The story is an appealing one and filled with detail of farm life, such as fashioning a new shaft for a broken plow. There are also plenty of details about the seductive gypsy girl with her black hair and white breasts. The poor farm boy is driven mad with desire and post-coital regret, with the sexual congress depicted in a piano solo. This allowed Mr. Drake to let out all the stops!

Music stands were used and, in this case, we can understand and tolerate their presence; but we must say that the part we enjoyed the best was when Ms. Johnson Cano walked onstage to sing the part of the gypsy Zefka--off the book! And she sang the hell out of it!

Contributing to the texture of the music was a chorus of three women who sang from the balcony--soprano Kathleen O'Mara and mezzo-sopranos Marie Engle and Megan Esther Grey. They sounded like a choir of angels!

This was interesting music, filled with pungent harmonies and wild rhythms. We don't know if we will ever get to hear it again but are very glad to have experienced it once.

As usual, the audience rose to its collective feet and showered the artists with accolades. Mr. Polenzani pointed out that the final work was a "tough act to follow" but he nonetheless rewarded his fans with a heartfelt delivery of "Danny Boy".

(c) meche kroop

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