United States Schubert, Beethoven, Brahms, Janáček: Matthew Polenzani (tenor), Jennifer Johnson Cano (mezzo-soprano), Julius Drake (piano), Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall, New York, 24.2.2019. (RP)
Schubert – ‘Nachtstück’ D.672, ‘Im Frühling’ D.882, ‘Frühlingsglaube’ D.686, ‘Der Einsame’ D.800, ‘Ständchen’ D.957 No.4, ‘Im Abendrot’ D.799
Beethoven – An die ferne Geliebte Op.98
Brahms – Zigeunerlieder Op.103
Janáček – The Diary of One Who Disappeared [with Kathleen O’Mara (soprano), Marie Engle (mezzo-soprano), Megan Grey (mezzo-soprano)]
It’s the height of cold and flu season in New York City, but tenor Matthew Polenzani and Julius Drake, his accompanist, pulled off the near impossible for their sold-out recital at Carnegie Hall. Not only was the audience remarkably still during the entire, rather lengthy recital, but they managed to perform Beethoven’s song cycle, An die ferne Geliebte, with nary a cough to be heard. (Not that they gave anyone much chance, as there wasn’t even the briefest of pauses between the songs.) Granted, Polenzani had invited the audience to get it all out of their systems after the first song and empathized with them: ‘I feel your pain’. If that is all it takes, however, other artists would surely have learned this trick by now.
The spell was cast with the opening notes of Schubert’s ‘Nachtstück’. In a matter of seconds, Drake had transported the audience into a forest at night. Polenzani then entered softly, totally within the moment. Perhaps this is what is expected of a singer and his accompanist, yet it is rare enough to merit mention. However, it was the little surprises which followed that made their performances of these beloved songs so intriguing and satisfying.
In ‘Im Frühling’, Drake added to the excitement with the briefest of hesitations before the final strophe, while Polenzani lingered ever so slightly on the soft, final high note when singing longingly of a bird free to sing of nothing but love all summer. He instilled a jaunty, conversational tone in ‘Der Einsame’. ‘Ständchen’ began with a sense of mystery and suspense, a mood that never abated in a seamless arc of emotion that climaxed in the final stanza with a plea for his beloved to appear. With the final song, ‘Im Abendrot’, the poet was alone at sunset, vowing to embrace the fire of love, knowing full well that heartbreak will follow in its course.
An die ferne Geliebte likewise finds Beethoven inspired by the intertwined themes of nature and love. Polenzani and Drake again imbued them with a heightened, restrained sense of drama by the most subtle of means. A sudden agitation crept in unexpectedly during the final lines of the first song, ‘Auf dem Hügel, sitz ich spähend’, belying the optimism of the text. In the next song, the buoyant ‘Wo die Berge so blau’, when Polenzani sang of the peaceful valley where pain and torment do not exist, his vibrato matched that of the piano perfectly, which created a perfectly synchronized shimmer of sound.
In the penultimate song of the cycle, Drake announced the return of May with jubilation in the piano, and Polenzani sang full-voiced of lovers reunited after a long winter. With the final song, warmth emanated from his voice as he offered the poet’s songs as a gift to his beloved. Longing has rarely been expressed so tenderly.
Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano hurled out a call to strike up the strings, and just as instantly as Drake had conjured up a forest at night earlier, the audience was caught up in the outbursts of a gypsy bemoaning a faithless lover. Cano is a physical singer, pulling you into the songs with her entire body. Brahms’s Zigeunerlieder sat perfectly in her voice. From top to bottom it is even and full, the softest tones sung with the same vibrant sound as the most robust of fortes.
It’s hot-blooded music: csárdás melodies are interspersed with love songs in which passions rage and hearts are broken. Drake’s rolled chords in ‘Rote Abendwolken zieh’n’ underscored the unbridled ardor of the song, but it was the tenderest of them, ‘Kommst du manchmal in den Sinn’, which was the most disarmingly effective. Cano sang it as a simple prayer, quietly imploring that her sweetheart remain constant and true, loving her as she does him. (Cano’s affinity with the texts and the language was not by accident: she had supplied the idiomatic and poetic translations in the program.)
Janáček’s The Diary of One Who Disappeared is also a gypsy love story. The composer attributed its emotional fire to his infatuation with a woman 38 years his junior, Kamila Stösslová, who inspired some of his greatest works. In 22 songs, the cycle tells the story of Jan, a young farm lad who is bewitched and then seduced by a dark-haired gypsy girl, Zefka. Initially guilt-ridden, he ultimately abandons his parents to be with her and their child.
As Jan, Polenzani was at first timid, frightened by the girl who so brazenly stares at him and tossing her furtive sidelong glances. He sighed, his voice aching in desperation, later cursing her in tones that bristled with frustration and lust. Upon seeing her naked, he is besotted with her white breasts and beckoning thighs. The young man’s emotions are raw and coarse: contemptuous of the gypsy girl and recoiling in disgust at the thought of being called son by a gypsy woman and her husband.
These songs sat higher in Polenzani’s voice than either the Schubert or the Beethoven. It was a different instrument, still beautiful, but more metallic in timbre and radiating energy, a bit more operatic. His voice took on even more warmth and color as sensual pleasures and then affection overcame him. At the cycle’s close, Polenzani’s face beamed with joy that was reflected in his voice, a man transformed by love.
Cano was the gypsy girl, strolling on stage and seducing him with both her voice and eyes. Earthiness, black hair and flashing dark eyes were not in her arsenal, but sultry and mischievous were. High above the stage stood the trio of female singers who described the sad song that she sang to him.
Drake is a champion of these songs and knows them intimately. Every emotion that coursed through the singers’ voices also ran through his fingers, save one. It is the piano and not the human voice that paints the ecstasy of their love making.
For an encore, Polenzani sang ‘Danny Boy’. He spoke briefly of the challenges of doing a song after the Janáček and opted for one that he is requested to perform the world over. It was perfection.