Bryn Terfel makes the Tanglewood stage his world

July 10, 2015 at 12:06 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Bryn Terfel performed a recital Thursday night at Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall.

There is little doubt that Bryn Terfel remains one of the most versatile performers on the music scene today. The Welsh bass-baritone, with his bold stage presence and nimble, powerful voice, has earned acclaim for principal roles in works by Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, and Wagner as well as for Sweeney Todd and Fiddler on the Roof.

But it is in the intimate world of the art song where Terfel’s talents as singer and actor can be at their most poignant, and he is capable of mining drama even from smaller works. That was the case Thursday night at Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall, where the singer offered bracing accounts of songs by German, French, and Welsh composers.

The latter was a rare treat and provided some of the evening’s most colorful musical moments.

Meirion Williams (1901-1976), Wales’ most famous composer of songs, drew influence from the work of Debussy and Fauré. His compositional style is thoroughly tonal, but infused with passages of gentle chromaticism and shimmering harmonies.

Terfel made much of the free-moving melodies of “Aberdaron.” In “Gwynfyd,” a Debussyesque song about the search for paradise, the singer moved between passages of stentorian tone and haunting whispers. “Y Cymro” and “Aros Mae’r Mynyddau Mawr” were rousing in their Welsh nationalism, and Terfel, seeming to lend his voice to the cause, sang them with a deep, resonant tone and crisp diction.

Bryan Davies’ arrangement of Welsh folksongs proved equally rewarding. Terfel was in command of them all, portraying a tuneful blacksmith in “Migildi Magaldi,” handling the reverential strains of “Little Welsh Home” with clear and percussive enunciation, and singing the soft phrases of “Dafydd y Garreg Wen” with prayerful reverence. The warmth of Terfel’s voice added a touch of nostalgia to “Ar lan y Môr,” a touching song about one’s true love dwelling by the sea.

Throughout, pianist Natalia Katyukova was a fine accompanist. She played with pearly tone and a delicate ear to Terfel’s musical line, echoing him and supplying her own feathery support.

Her silky touch made for a dreamy soundscape in Debussy’s “Nuit d’étoiles” and for a dark, cold atmosphere of Fauré’s “Automne,” two of a number of French works that opened the program.

In these pieces, Terfel showed the softer side of his vast voice. His rendering of Debussy’s “Mandoline” was especially delicate. Yet from this music he occasionally found a sudden urgency, as he did in Fauré’s “Fleur jetée,” his tone thunderous for the final, chilling phrase.

The second half featured dramatic performances of German lieder. In Schumann’s “Belsatzar,” Terfel deftly maneuvered between the solemn tone of a storyteller, the clear penetrating voice of the Babylonian king, and eerie phrases to capture the king’s fear at the unearthly message that appears on his wall. The images cast in Schubert’s “Gruppe aus dem Tartarus” were hellishly clear through Terfel’s powerful, declamatory style.

Schubert’s “Die Taubenpost” was free in its expression, aided by the gentle ebb and flow of Katyukova’s accompaniment. Terfel took his time to emphasize each phrase, the resulting music gliding along like the carrier pigeon portrayed in the song.

As a leading opera singer, Terfel has had the opportunity to perform as some of the grandest villains in the literature, and Thursday, he offered a selection of so-called “Bad Boy” arias. “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer” from Kurt Weill’s Dreigroschenoper was teasing and galumphed with just the right amount of humor. “Sono lo spirito che nega” from Boito’s Mefistofele, was brooding, its chilling effects topped off with a piercing whistle at aria’s end.

To round out the second half, Terfel offered a series of songs associated with the now little-known American baritone John Charles Thomas.

Much like Terfel, Thomas was known for his singing of classical and popular repertoire and once famously offered “Home on the Range” as an encore after his performance in Aїda with the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Terfel’s rendering of the song, which turned into an audience sing-along, was touching while “The Lord’s Prayer” stirred one’s religious convictions, Terfel singing with the power and clarity of a country preacher’s sermon. The singer found the humor in the “Green-eyed Dragon,” punctuating the brisk lines with well-placed growls.

Terfel’s first encore, Frederick Keel’s “Trade Winds,” set to a poem by John Masefield, was tender and evocative of the warm seas conjured by the song’s imagery. And “If I were a rich man” from Fiddler on the Roof showcased his versatility as a singer-actor—the key element that makes Terfel’s talent so unique.

Bryn Terfel will perform with Sondra Radvanovsky, Brandon Jovanovich, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Act 1 of Puccini’s Tosca, conducted by Bramwell Tovey 8:30 p.m. Saturday at the Koussevitzky Shed. bso.org

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