George London Foundation opens with a current star and gifted newcomer

Mon Oct 21, 2013 at 5:19 am
Matthew Polenzani and Corinne Winters perform at a George London Foundation concert Sunday at the Morgan Library. Photo: Shawn Ehlers

Matthew Polenzani and Corinne Winters perform at a George London Foundation concert Sunday at the Morgan Library. Photo: Shawn Ehlers

On Sunday afternoon at the Morgan Library, the George London Foundation’s first recital of the season featured two recent George London Award recipients: the well-established tenor Matthew Polenzani and the promising newcomer, soprano Corinne Winters. It was an unabashedly audience-friendly program (all of the composers represented were mid- or late-Romantic), but the assortment was just varied enough to feel appealingly eclectic.

Corinne Winters, who won her George London grant in 2012, began the recital with a set of French art songs, three by Saint-Saëns and two by Reynaldo Hahn. In the first, Hahn’s Les Fontaines, it seemed she was pushing at the beginning, hitting too hard in her upper register. The difference between her registers was fitfully jarring, most noticeable in Saint-Saëns’s Aimons-nous. That punchy sound was persistent up top, while in her middle range she sounded thin, even airy. Her French diction left much to be desired, as most of the vowels were off.

She is, however, a very sensitive artist, as she demonstrated in her plaintive Si vous n’avez rien à me dire. Her tone was fuller in Infidélité, though her pitch consistently sat just below the note. At the piano, Ken Noda was for the most part a very responsive accompanist, though even employed too heavy in the last song of this set, Le Printemps.

Polenzani, a 1998 London award recipient, presented a selection of original songs by Liszt, first bringing his creamy tone and remarkable control to Wie singt die Lerche schön. Here he allowed the simplicity of the music to speak for itself. Of the others, Die stille Wasserose was most notable for its spectacular focus and warmth.

Winters returned for the aria “Dis-moi que je suis belle” from Act II of Massenet’s Thaïs. There was more body to her voice than there had been before, though she hinted at what was troubling her by subtly clearing her throat in a few strategic places. There were still a few moments in which she pulled her voice back into a smaller, thinner sound, but here they acted as endearing moments of innocence, flashes of vulnerability in her character’s alluring confidence. Her high D was ringingly clear, and dead on in the center of the note.

More Massenet closed out the first half: Polenzani gave an emotionally charged and beautifully sung “Pourquoi me réveiller” from Act III of Werther. He displayed superb attention to meaning, with a haunting pause on “toute mon âme est là” at the end of the recitative. In the aria proper, he got to show off his versatility, contrasting flowing lyricism with the peals of anguish that end both verses. The focused intensity of his voice was commanding.

Pplenzani began the second half with Ravel’s Cinq mélodies populaires grecques. He found many different characters and qualities in the five songs, following the light and humorous swagger of “Quel gallant m’est comparable” with the sentimental tenderness of the “Chanson des cueilleuses de lentisques.” Only the last of these five, “Tout gai!”, seemed off, as he overpowered the material ever so slightly.

Winters continued to cough during her two Russian offerings, but it hardly mattered. Whether because she felt more comfortable in the language or because she had a glass of water at intermission, she was far more at home here than she had been in her French songs. Her diction was still a little fuzzy in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Dreams of a Summer Night, but suddenly there was considerable roundness of tone in her lower register and crisp lightness up top. Here, as well as in Rachmaninoff’s Dreams, she had a sense of innocent wonder.

The printed program ended with yet more Massenet—the St. Sulpice scene from Act III of Manon. The staging at the beginning, which placed Polenzani behind the piano, was awkward, but the two singers overcame it with their committed performances. Winters retained the confident sound of her Russian selections, reveling in the sultry richness of Massenet’s writing.

Polenzani displayed every bit as much electricity as he does in fully staged productions. His voice was so taut it sounded as though it could give way any second—it didn’t, of course, but the excitement that came with the appearance of singing on the brink fit perfectly with the scene’s psychological tension.

To lighten the mood they sang an encore of “Oh, Happy We” from Bernstein’s Candide, sparkling with childish delight.

The next George London Foundation recital will feature John Relyea and Lori Guilbeau at the Morgan Library on Sunday, March 9.

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