Bryn Terfel: Master of the Celebrity Concert

CanadaCanada Ibert, Schumann, Schubert, et al: Bryn Terfel (bass-baritone), Natalia Katyukova (piano), Orpheum Theatre, Vancouver, 4.5.2016 (GN)

Bryn Terfel and Natalia Katyukova (courtesy of Vancouver Recital Society)
Bryn Terfel and Natalia Katyukova (courtesy of Vancouver Recital Society)

Lewis: ‘Can yr arad goch’
Williams: ‘Gwynfyd’, ‘Sul y blodau’, ‘Y Cymro’
Keel: Salt-water ballads: ‘Port of many ships’, ‘Trade Winds’, ‘Mother Carey’
Ibert: Chansons de Don Quichotte
Davies: A Medley of Welsh Folksongs
Schumann: ‘Belsatzar’, Op. 57; Zwei Venezianische Lieder: ‘Leis’rudern hier’, Op. 25 No. 17; ‘Wenn durch die Piazzetta’, Op. 25, No. 18
Schubert: ‘Gruppe aus dem Tartarus’, D583; ‘Liebesbotschaft’, D957, No. 1; ‘Das Fischermädchen’, D957, No. 10; ‘Auf dem wasser zu singen’, D774; ‘Die Taubenpost’, D965a

Celebrity concerts are an elusive art form. They serve as a vehicle to display the iconic talents of the artist in question, but they also aim to give the less seasoned concertgoer an enduring imprint of, and connection with, the artist. It is the fact that a patron purchases not only specific entertainment but also a durable good – a living memory that one can tell neighbours or the grandchildren about – that likely explains the high ticket prices one encounters. One irony of concerts of this type is that they usually take place in the largest venues, which in itself removes tangibility and immediacy for many. Furthermore, there may be a quality tradeoff, where musical substance is relegated to second place behind more general dimensions of charisma and engagement. This is likely to be of little consequence for those come mainly for photos and signed CDs, but it is a concern for the critic and those who put a premium on substance.

Acknowledged ‘masters’ such as Sir Andras Schiff, Murray Perahia, or Itzhak Perlman don’t have to do anything special at such events; their patrician sensibility and sheer authority are usually sufficient to cast a spell over the audience. On the other hand, Yo-Yo Ma is a magician at presenting a more publicly-accessible ‘cool’ repertoire, letting both his charm and seriousness of purpose make the outing special. The younger icons are often more of a problem. They know that their adoring (young) followers will accept anything they do, so they can often override musical integrity. Here we often witness performances with a greater commitment to ‘acting like an icon’ than to digging into the music itself. Singers tend to drive a similar line since they also have a very adoring following. They are stage performers and find it natural to talk to the audience – revealing their ‘human’ side and telling stories – while throwing up well-known musical jewels in between. However, this approach can easily become kitschy and sentimental, sacrificing real content, and the critic often goes home wondering what to write about. We all love Renee Fleming, but her last celebrity appearance here – when she decided that she was going to be a rock-star – ended up decidedly thin.

All of this is a long-winded prelude to saying that I thought Bryn Terfel did this ‘celebrity’ concert to absolute perfection. He aimed for real musical depth for most of the programme, showing galvanic seriousness of purpose, yet he engaged the audience completely with his charm and carefully-judged stage show. This was his first concert here since 2008. A lot of the talk was just brief stories from the past: his previous teachers (Arthur Reckless at Guildhall), with elliptical references to great singers (Feodor Chaliapin, John Charles Thomas). Nonetheless, his line was unerring. By the end, he had all the freedom to be as comic as he wished (and was in fact deliciously funny and playful), yet we all knew this had sprung from a very serious artist who communicates directly and humanly and prizes his art form. His other asset was young Russian pianist Natalia Katyukova, who was with the singer every step of the way. She increasingly proved to be a most sensitive artist, capable of very clean lines but fully up to the more imaginative demands that Terfel necessitates.

There could hardly be a more pleasant way to begin than with a few Welsh and British songs. These are not the peak of song, yet they are far from insubstantial and have their own endearing charm. Terfel sang the Welsh songs in a manner born, and it was lovely to see his command of language, his identifications with the texts, and the naturalness of his expression. ‘The Song of the Plough’ had an enticing sense of play and ease, while ‘Paradise’ conjured up a delicious smoothness and touching sentiment. ‘Palm Sunday’ extended the range of tender, affecting feelings, while ‘The Welshman’ brought natural enthusiasm along with a number of truly commanding flourishes that only this singer can provide. One always noted the certainty of phrase and dynamics, and the natural pliability of the vocal texture. In turn, the three English songs brought a lesson on Terfel’s pristine enunciation at high speed; ‘Trade Winds’ was special in its quiet lyricism.

The first peak of the concert was Ibert’s Chansons de Don Quichotte. Here we saw more of the singer’s characteristic dramatic strength and commanding side, some of which may have been inherited from his recent performances of Boris Godunov at Covent Garden. Equally impressive was his flexibility over different vocal contours. In ‘Chanson de la Mort’, all the dramatic strength and suspension were there, but how lovely was the lyrical unfolding, and how easily the baritone could move to a disarming sotte voce at key moments. The length of his expressive line was equally stunning in ‘Chanson à Dulcinée’.

Many opera singers have floundered when it comes to German lieder, simply lacking the fine-edged control to put the spell of this repertoire in place. Terfel’s traversals may be slightly big-boned for some moods, but one can never doubt his control or sterling ability to mine the text for vocal illumination and beauty. Opinion might divide slightly on whether his presentation is always intimate enough, or whether or not his retreat to a sotte voce – sometimes extreme to the point of inaudibility – is absolutely necessary, but I think there is probably very little in it.

Schumann’s ‘Belsatzar’ was a real triumph, absolutely vivid, dramatic, and menacing, with superb pacing. Terfel had enviable patience in unfolding this story. The Two Venetian Airs also had a compelling sense of architecture to put alongside their charm. In the closing Schubert songs, Terfel’s dramatic sense was unerring and his emotional engagement was always evident. I was impressed with how often he achieved a warm, lyrical flow. The popular ‘Liebesbotschaft’, ‘Das Fischermadchen’, and ‘Die Taubenpost’ all received the most caring preparation and were fully rewarding. The refined ease of expression and the superb legato line in the former were fully matched by the cloak of consuming warmth that came forth in Schubert’s last song. I was also impressed with pianist Natalia Katyukova’s insightful contribution here.

And, then, suddenly it was play-time! Terfel’s magical encores moved to a vocal rendition of the Lord’s Prayer, to the unstoppable ‘Home on the Range’ (with audience participation), and to children songs, featuring vocal take-offs on farmyard animals and the like. Absolutely charming and performed with great delight, but this seemed like just a natural unwinding from all the intensity before. Additional entertainment it was, but we all knew we had witnessed the full and magnificent art of Bryn Terfel when it was over.

Geoffrey Newman

Previously published in a slightly different form on


Leave a Comment