Matthew Polenzani: Not Your Ordinary, Run-of-the-Mill Tenor

 United StatesUnited States Beethoven, Liszt, Satie, Ravel, and Barber: Matthew Polenzani (tenor), Julius Drake (piano), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 6.2.2015 (BJ)

Beethoven: Adelaide, Op. 46
Liszt: Wie singt die Lerche schön; Der Glücklichek; Die stille Wasserrose; Im Rhein, im schönen Strome; Es rauschen die Winde; Four Songs on Poems of Victor Hugo
Satie: La statue de bronze;
Le chapelier
Ravel: Cinq Mélodies populaires grecques
Barber: Hermit Songs, Op. 29


I already knew that Matthew Polenzani could sing softly, having heard his ravishing “Un aura amorosa” in a Seattle Opera Così fan tutte all of nine years ago. But his Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital was illuminated by an intelligence, taste, and sense of style that I could not have predicted from that solitary previous encounter with this exceptionally gifted American tenor.

Actually, I might have guessed it from the clever and effective planning of his program—but the reality outstripped any possible anticipation. Truth to tell, the voice, at high dynamic levels, is not the most beautiful in the world, and one or two of the bigger declarative phrases in the Beethoven and Liszt songs were a tad burdensome on the ear—yet they were delivered accurately and with an unfailing sense of what they meant in the context of the poems in which they appeared. And at every level below fortissimo, Polenzani commands a wonderful range of color and an equally broad spectrum of emotion, enhanced by a acuity of facial expression that never spills over into affectation. His breath control is immaculate, and his falsetto as beautiful as any I can remember hearing.

His choice of Liszt songs underlined the sheer individuality and poetic imagination of this still underrated composer. One of the German songs, “Im Rhein, im schönen Strome,” offered a fascinating counterpoise to the setting of the almost identical text in Schumann’s Dicterliebe, and Liszt’s settings of Hugo—“Victor Hugo, hélas,” André Gide said when someone asked him who the greatest French poet was—served to demonstrated both the breadth of the composer’s linguistic expertise and Polenzani’s impressive command of languages

The Satie and Ravel groups after intermission brought a salutary lightening of mood, realized with unerring wit by Polenzani and his superb pianist, Julius Drake. The latter seems to be turning into a sort of Gerald Moore for our time, and showed a range of expression from the most intimate to an uninhibited dynamism that yet never crossed the border into harshness. (Only in the middle syllable of one word in the fourth Ravel song, “ardemment,” did Polenzani’s French sound less than flawlessly idiomatic.)

The official program ended with Barber’s Hermit Songs: here, for this agnostic Jew, the more serious songs, such as “St. Ita’s Vision,” highlighted the more disagreeably mawkish aspects of Christianity, but the more extrovert ones were great fun, and “The Monk and his Cat” was sheer delight in this interpretation.

We were treated to three encores: fine songs by Reynaldo Hahn and Frank Bridge, and, to conclude, a Robert Burns setting in which Drake fashioned a perfectly limpid account of the piano part—Polenzani’s voice here seemed to be floating effortlessly on the surface of an idyllic lake.

Bernard Jacobson

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