Pisaroni Makes a Leap from Italian Opera to German Lieder

CanadaCanada Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schubert: Luca Pisaroni (bass-baritone), Wolfram Rieger (piano), Chan Centre, Vancouver BC, 26.10.2014 (GN)

Mozart: Das Veilchen; Komm liebe Zither; An Chloe; Abendempfindung
Beethoven: Lied aus der Feme; Der Kuss; Ich liebe dich (Zarltliche Liebe); Adelaide
Mendelssohn: Neue Liebe; Gruss; Morgengruss; Alnachtliche in Traume seh’ ich dich; Auf Flugein des Gesange; Reiselied
Schubert: Der Atlas; Ihr Bild; Das Fischermadchen; Die Stadt; Am Meer; Der Doppelganger; Auf dem See; Grenzen der Menschheit; Ganymed; Erlkonig; Wanderers Nachtlied II; An Schwager Kronos

In an era where we often take for granted that young singers can perform both opera and lieder at will, it is useful to think carefully about the case of talented, 39-year-old bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni. How does a promising Italian singer who in his youth knew all the great Italian operas by heart come, by his own admission, to be fixated with German lieder?  Then again, how easy is it for an artist who has gained a strong reputation in relatively dramatic Mozart roles (plus some Handel and Verdi) to suddenly acquire all the subtle lyricism necessary for Romantic art song?  Baritones such as Thomas Allen, Simon Keelyside, Gerald Finley, and Thomas Hampson switch genres so often and so successfully that we fail to appreciate just how major an accomplishment this is. And, in reality there have been very few singers (let alone Italian ones) who have negotiated both sides of the fence very well. Part of the explanation for Luca Pisaroni’s interest may be simple: he is the son-in-law of Thomas Hampson. As a relatively new entrant into the German lieder stakes, this recital gave us some feeling for what Pisaroni does well at this point and where his inexperience shows.

I enjoyed the first half of this concert. One might have wanted more vocal freedom, dramatic point and textual fidelity, but I admired Pisaroni’s relatively restrained posture, concentrating on vocal fundamentals but always maintaining confidence and emotional engagement. The pivot, of course, is the beautifully rich and burnished voice itself. It may not be the most flexible, and the higher reaches may not be as differentiated as a normal baritone, but, at its best, it is just lovely. Pisaroni has worked for a long time with pianist Wolfram Rieger, and the latter’s contribution was far from negligible, often finding an animation and life on his side of the collaboration.

Four Mozart songs often brought out a gentleness that was most appealing. “An Chloe” combined a rich and deep vocal fabric with smooth transitions, convincing in its continuity. “Abendempfindung” also achieved a consuming refinement and emotional suspension through its lyrical line. A Beethoven set went well too, often bringing out an affecting warmth. There was a nicely-intuitive sense of legato phrase and natural motion in “Lied as der Ferne” and “Ich liebe dich”, both working in long paragraphs. The famous “Adelaide” had less sense of line, but the articulation and phrasing struck me as quite subtle, with a number of vocal textures sometimes at play in close proximity. Breaking the relative austerity, “Der Kuss” saw Pisaroni wittily projecting the song with a true twinkle in his eye.

Four Mendelsson lieder gave a glimpse of this artist’s agility. Pisaroni was reasonably compelling in “Lied aus der Ferne,” though in “Alinachtlich in Traume seh ich dich” I thought that the singer needed even more motion. The classic “Auf Flugein des Gasange’ had strength and resilience, but it was in “Reiselied” that we saw Pisaroni at full throttle, relishing the drama and moving out more strongly than in anything before. The articulation and line were quite splendid.

The Schubert songs in the second half had considerably less confidence and distinction. Part of the problem was that the Heine songs from Schwanengesang are unrelievedly gloomy, so it is tricky to sustain them as if they had continually fresh insights. When one is already downtrodden, it is difficult to get excited by new pain. “Der Atlas” started well enough but I found the articulation more cautious than earlier. By itself, “Ihr Bild” suggests a certain pallour, but here the singing wanted true intensity and vocal differentiation. Also, the lighter “Das Fiscermadchen” did not quite have a Schubertian expanse and fluidity, leaving some of its emotions unexplored. And the potentially-harrowing “Der Doppeleganger” was hardly that, being too smooth and uniform in expression. Articulating and sustaining the ‘blackness’ of these settings certainly showed off the rich textures in the lower reaches of Pisaroni’s voice. However, in this case there was very little ‘building’ of this blackness— through subtle tonal contrast and varying intensities—that might have truly suspended the listener in the composer’s state.

Six Goethe settings were better, offering more variety. Pisaroni’s interpretations of the two famous final songs, “Erikonig” and “An Schwager Kronos,” were quite distinguished. The former had a stronger vocal differentiation and character, while the mighty “Kronos” permitted a more unbridled and dramatic outpouring that the singer obviously warmed to. The other songs were fairly well negotiated though it sometimes seemed that Pisaroni had not yet internalized their full flow of feelings, leaving them emotionally slightly vague.

Geoffrey Newman

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