Switzerland Fauré, Vaughan Williams, Ravel: Tómas Tómasson (baritone) and Rafael Gordillo (piano). Pauluskirche Zurich, Zurich, 26.11.2020. (JR)
Fauré – En Prière; Au Cimetière; En Sourdine; Automne; Le Secret
Vaughan Williams – Songs of Travel
Ravel – Don Quichotte à Dulcinée
Thankfully, song recitals (Liederabende) are still possible during partial lockdown here, but the audience is sadly limited to a mere fifty, with the rest only able to enjoy the performance via livestream or Zoom. For this recital by Icelandic baritone Tómas Tómasson, I was one of the very lucky few. This concert was generously sponsored by local patron of the arts Dr. Reinhard Oertli.
Tómasson grew up in Iceland wanting to be a physicist, not expecting to end up a professional singer. Rather too loud, as he admits, in his local choir, he was taken aside for some voice training – at that stage unable to read music. Now he is in demand on many international opera and concert stages. I saw him recently as Dr. Kolenatý in The Makropoulos case (review click here) in September last year, where he impressed with his firm projection. Next March Tómasson will (hopefully) sing Klingsor in Parsifal in Geneva, having been a fine Wotan/Wanderer (Siegfried) there a season ago.
Tómasson, who has lived in Brussels and in France, started his recital with some rather mournful Fauré songs, plain and undemonstrative.
En prière exuded a sombre mood; Tómasson took some time to warm up, especially in his upper register where intonation needed tightening. This was however a heartfelt portrait of devotion, a picture of someone at prayer.
Au cimetière compared death at sea with burial on land. The initial peacefulness of this song precedes a savage contrast where Tómasson unleashed the huge volume at his command. The vast, reverberant acoustic of the Pauluskirche did not serve the singer well at times, especially as it was virtually empty.
En Sourdine created a subdued atmosphere, not ideally suited to Tómasson’s dark, black voice. I kept visualising, as Tómasson sang, the ash-covered lava fields of his homeland’s volcano Eyjafjallajökull.
Le Secret encompassed religious awe and devotion with a transcendental effect; I could have done with hearing more characterful phrasing of the lines, although Tómasson’s French diction was good.
Automne is a far from gentle evocation of autumn, which opts for drama – albeit with some wistful regret – rather than charm, perhaps evoking October storms rather than fog and falling leaves; Tómasson relished the vocal climax in this song.
These songs served well as a poignant opener for the recital.
I felt that Tómasson’s rich, dark voice was far better suited to the Vaughan Williams than to the Fauré. Vaughan Williams’s Songs of Travel were composed just after the turn of last century, using texts by Robert Louis Stevenson, and one automatically compares these songs, favourably I suggest, with the Songs of a Wayfarer by John Ireland and Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, and even Schubert’s Winterreise.
Tómasson’s English diction was faultless; no surprise, he studied at the Royal College of Music in London.
The opening song The vagabond established the cycle’s Romantic credentials; indeed Stevenson had composed the words to an air of Schubert. It opens with a line, which might echo all our feelings at this present time, midway through the coronavirus pandemic, ‘Give to me the life I love’.
The song’s steady tramping accompaniment evoked the purposeful tread of the wanderer striding out on the open road and sleeping under the stars. I listened before attending this recital to Bryn Terfel’s rendition in the studio of the same cycle; Terfel adds more colour, more characterisation to the cycle; as Tómasson put it to me after the concert, Terfel gives the cycle a different interpretation.
Let Beauty awake, with its images of dawn and dusk, was sung fervently, and one could not fail to admire the arpeggio accompaniment, beautifully played by Rafael Gordillo (now accompanist for the Zurich Opera House chorus).
The roadside fire radiated the joy of new-found love. Youth and love is the nub of the cycle and points to its central dilemma: which is preferable, love and a settled life, or solitude and the freedom to wander? In dreams had a dark, brooding melancholy, which suited Tómasson’s voice perfectly.
We felt the traveller looking up at the stars in The infinite shining heavens. Whither must I wander? is a particularly fine song, simple in structure, appropriate to the poet’s images of childhood. Bright is the ring of words ended with touching words evoking lost love. The brief epilogue, I have trod the upward and the downward slope encapsulates the whole cycle with the wanderer, now old, looking ahead to his final journey beyond the grave, ending with the words ‘I have lived and loved, and closed the door’. It was a moving and thoughtful performance, admirably sung.
Ravel’s last three songs, Don Quichotte à Dulcinée, were the result of a commission for a 1930s film about the Spanish knight directed by the Austrian filmmaker Georg Pabst, with Feodor Chaliapin in the title role. The contract specified a serenade, a heroic song and a comic one, with a deadline of August, and a warning that Chaliapin preferred not to have too many high notes! In the event – due to illness – Ravel was too slow in finishing the commission and composer Jacques Ibert was engaged instead for the film, though Ravel eventually completed the three songs we heard.
The songs portray, in turn, Don Quixote as lover, warrior and drinker, and Ravel chose three distinct types of dance rhythm to illustrate these facets. The first, recalling Chabrier, Chanson romanesque, is a quajira, a Spanish dance with alternating rhythms (Ravel grew up right by the French border with Spain). For the Chanson épique (epic, heroic) Ravel chose the rhythm of the Basque zortzico, recalling not so much Chabrier as Ravel’s teacher Fauré. (As Tómasson pointed out at the start of the concert, Ravel was Vaughan Williams’s teacher, so the programme was teacher/pupil and then pupil as teacher).
The final Chanson à boire celebrated the only real attribute of the Don, his love of the drink, incorporating exaggerations typical of a drunkard. Tómasson entered fully into the spirit (excuse the pun) of the text to round off this intelligently conceived recital.
You can watch the recital on YouTube (click here) and it starts at 36mins.