2014/15 Great Performers
“Art of the Song”
Matthew Polenzani, Tenor
Julius Drake, Piano
Alice Tully Hall
Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
February 4, 2015
Program: Works by Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827), Franz Liszt (1811-1886), Erik Satie (1866-1925), Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), Samuel Barber (1910-1981).
After seeing and hearing tenor, Matthew Polenzani, last August, in the Lincoln Center Summer HD film of a 2012 performance of L’Elisir d’Amore, as well as a role in Don Pasquale, I was determined to hear him perform live, when the opportunity arose. Mr. Polenzani exudes an incredible level of pure, unrestrained emotionality in each performance, dramatizing each and every lyric, amidst some of the most amazingly gorgeous vocal tones found among tenors in today’s opera community. Mr. Polenzani, a lyric tenor, will appear in the Met’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, later this month and next. Mr. Polenzani, who won the 2004 Richard Tucker Award and the 2008 Met Opera’s Beverly Sills Artist Award, will also appear at the Bavarian State Opera and at the Opernhaus in Zurich. Julius Drake, tonight’s pianist, will tour the US with Mr. Polenzani in recitals, such as tonight’s. Mr. Drake, who lives in London, specializes in chamber works and performs with many leading global artists. Mr. Polenzani and Mr. Drake have recorded together, as well as with international artists and orchestras.
Beethoven’s “Adelaide” (1794-95) opened tonight’s program, with warm and glowing vocal strength, from Mr. Polenzani’s first sung note. His facial gestures, posture, and expressiveness enhanced the listening experience, as he dramatizes each word, here in German. I had heard Mr. Polenzani sing in Italian in the two Donizetti operas, last summer, so hearing him greet the crowd, in his native English (Mr. Polenzani lives in New York), and then sing in persuasively proficient German, was fascinating. “Adelaide” was sung with yearning romanticism and acute intensity. The “Five Songs” by Liszt: (1840-78) “Wie singt die Lerche schön”, “Der Glückliche”, “Die stille Wasserrose”, “Im Rhein, im schönen Strome”, “Es rauschen die Winde”, included waterfalls of notes, vocal and piano, with Mr. Polenzani breathlessly changing vocal tone, higher and lower, stretching a vowel, even two times. The drama implodes exquisitely with musicality and unpredictable tempo. As the “Five Songs” end, Mr. Polenzani is theatrically shouting his lyrics, but with eloquent presence and expansive tonality.
The following “Four Songs” by Liszt (1844-59), now in French: “S’il est un charmant gazon”, “Enfant, si j’etais roi”, “Comment, disaient-ils”, “Oh! Quand je dors”, produced an entirely new listening highlight, as Mr. Polenzani reached some very high notes, almost mezzo-soprano, sometimes whispering, never wavering or trembling in the moment. The audience was riveted and spellbound, as the context of these four Victor Hugo poems brought forth Mr. Polenzani’s dramatic eloquence. When the highest tones became softer, almost seamlessly silent, the Tully crowd was enveloped in the communal gestalt. Prior to intermission, the audience vocally showed its appreciation, not only to Mr. Polenzani, tenor, but to Mr. Drake, for his sumptuous piano interludes and perfectly tuned accompaniment, always in just the right volume, never to overwhelm, always to transport.
Satie’s “Trois mélodies” (1916): “La statue de bronze”, “Daphénéo”, “Le chapelier”, greeted the audience, post-intermission with a very Satie-type ingénue humor and sweet atonality. The songs are about a frog (the bronze statue), a tree that grows “weeping birds”, and a hatmaker with a very slow watch. But, sung in perfectly pure French, Mr. Polenzani was entertaining and created a surreal, aesthetic aura. I have always been a fan of Satie and was unfamiliar with these brief “mélodies”. Each was upbeat and unique. The Ravel “Cinq mélodies populaires grecques” (1904-06): “Le réveil de la mariée”, “Là-bas, vers l’église”, “Quel galant!”, “Chansons des cueilleuses de lentisques”, “Tout gai!” were all composed as exotic, Greek folk songs to assist a French musicologist, Pierre Aubrey, the program notes. They were sung by Mr. Polenzani with individuality evoked within each song. They progressed from lilting and esoteric, to marching and vivacious, to serious and solemn, to impassioned longing; at least that was how I heard them. The first was sung with silky softness, while the last exuded volume and verve.
The final series of songs were by Barber, “Hermit Songs” (1952-53): “At St. Patrick’s Purgatory”, “Church Bells at Night”, “Saint Ita’s Vision”, “The Heavenly Banquet”, “The Crucifixion”, “Sea-Snatch”, “Promiscuity”, “The Monk and His Cat”, “The Praises of God”, “The Desire for Hermitage”. Obviously, Mr. Polenzani could have taken an easier route for tonight’s solo program, with popular tenor arias, but he chose this challenging, impressive series of songs, composed around the globe, many with atonal, dissonant chords and vocals. The result was a stunning success. One of Mr. Polenzani’s most impressive stylings is to hold his posture and gaze, within the song’s mood and sung character, even when piano and tenor have been silent for moments. He waits the beats. This is an extremely professional trait, one that expands the dramatic experience for the audience. Once again, this becomes the communal gestalt. The introspective and eerie “Hermit Songs” were followed by a rousing applause and several encores, prior to a CD signing in the lobby.
The encores were in Italian, not the most renowned arias, but superbly chosen for tonight’s exemplary recital. It was my pleasure to meet Mr. Polenzani and Mr. Drake at the signing, where I purchased their recording of Liszt songs as a gift for a friend, so she can share in the profound talent of these rising stars. Kudos to Matthew Polenzani, and kudos to Julius Drake.