Thursday, June 08, 2017

Beczala at UDC

Belated review of Piotr Beczala's Vocal Arts DC from May...

The star tenor recital is perhaps a higher stakes affair than, say, the comparable baritone event. A safe program rooted in your stage repertoire is nearly guaranteed to score a success with your audience, so branching out into less familiar terrain is an especially gutsy move (while your low-voiced colleagues have carte blanche to program whatever spinach they see fit.)

In a recent recital presented by Vocal Arts DC, Piotr Beczala grasped the opportunity to do something far afield from his stage roles in the first half, presenting the entirety of Schumann’s “Dichterliebe.”

Quickly dispelling any concerns that the big sound he deploys in the opera house would crush these delicate songs, Beczala assumed a surprisingly gentle and scaled down vocalism here, while preserving an appealing core of the warmth and ping. Indeed, Beczala only opened up into the more full throated we are used to seven pieces in, for the “Ich grolle nicht,” a thrilling touch for the restraint that came before.

This restraint came with something of a price in balance with Beczala’s collaborator at the piano, Martin Katz. Now, I like a robust piano contribution in a recital, especially in a work like this, where the riches of the accompaniment often rival the vocal line. But I’ll admit that preference was pushed to the limit here, with Katz boldly giving full (and glorious) voice to the piano despite Beczala’s light touch.  

Ultimately, Beczala’s “Dichterliebe” offered lots of thoughtful detail and earnest feeling in the moment, but these pieces probably need an additional layer of insight to stand apart, especially in moments like the dark imagery of the final song. I wouldn’t mind hearing a tasteful if predictable reading like Beczala’s again, but I’m not sure I would gain any deeper insight from it.

After the half, Beczala quickly made the audience forget any lingering equivocations about his Schumann, in songs by the late romantic Polish composer Mieczylaw Karlowicz.

Clearly relishing the chance to sing in his own tongue, serving the kind of throwback handsomeness that you and your grandma could easily bond over, Beczala inhabited the naked emotionalism of these songs with an infectious joy. These melancholy pieces (sample lyric: “Your words flowing toward me/Are like a prayer at the side of a coffin/They evoke shivers of death”) encourage a certain amount of indulgence, and Beczala complied, adding a hint of attractive sob in the voice or a shivery falsetto where appropriate, like the climax of the tender, gorgeously shaped final number, “I remember quiet, clear golden days.”

Heading south with a series of selections from Dvorak’s “Gypsy Melodies,” Beczala abandoned the smooth seduction of the Karlowicz set for a more rough-hewn sound in these character songs. Two of the lusty middle selections, “The string is taut” and “Wide sleeves and wide trousers,” were particularly extravagant, Beczala pushing a broad tone and delightfully reckless volume levels, but never crossing the line into ugly. The penultimate, unabashed tear-jerker “Songs my mother taught me” was a highlight as well.

Beczala returned to polished form for the final set, four surprisingly touching songs by Rachmaninoff. Like the Karlowicz selections these emotionally generous works seemed especially well-suited to his sensibilities, including a hushed, intimate reading of “Lilacs” and a thrillingly dramatic rendition of “Sing not to me, fair maiden.”

For his two encores (a treat for D.C., which seems hard pressed to muster more than a single courtesy bonus selection these days) Beczala indulged the audience with some Italian, starting with Leoncavallo’s “Mattinata.” While I certainly enjoy Beczala in his bread and butter rep, it was also a reminder that I sometimes find the sound of his Italian a little too broad and unidiomatic, a curious sensation after 40 minutes of his gloriously confident Polish, Czech, and Russian. By the irresistible second encore, Caruso barnburner “Core ‘ngrato (Catarì, Catarì),” this minor quibble had been thoroughly forgotten.

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