Songs from his native land find Beczała at his finest

Thu Mar 01, 2018 at 12:09 pm
Piotr Beczała performed a recital Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall.

Piotr Beczała performed a recital Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall.

You can take the singer out of the opera house, but you can’t take the opera house out of the singer.

That was the experience Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall, when star lyric tenor Piotr Beczała—a mainstay up the street at the Metropolitan Opera—delivered a recital, accompanied by Martin Katz. Opera house and hall were often in sympathy, but didn’t see eye-to-eye in some notable ways.

The hall was moderately full—there were swaths of empty seats on the floor level—and the crowd was vocal and passionate, with a substantial seasoning of opera fans (some brought their opera glasses) and a good helping of Polish overhead amid the conversations. These national fans of Beczała responded fervently to his every turn, calling him back for four encores, but a more critical listener was left with some dissatisfaction.

Beczała’s programming was an intriguing collection of infrequently heard and obscure songs, and the big (in relative terms) names on the list are likely in no one’s top 10, or even 20, of composers for the voice: Wolf-Ferrari, Respighi, Szymanowski, Karlowicz. Beczała split the bill by language, with Italian songs in the first half and Polish ones after intermission.

The first half was an on-and-off battle between operatic sensibilities and recital artfulness, driven mainly by the composers. Wolf-Ferrari and Respighi were sandwiched between Stefano Donaudy and Paolo Tosti. Donaudy was a failed opera composer (though some opera singers favor a few of his songs) from the late–19th/early–20th century, and Tosti a favorite in certain aristocratic courts of the 19th century.

Beczała sang three songs from each, similar in their faceless, acceptable prettiness and their maudlin sentimentality. What may have appealed to the tenor were the opportunities the music gave to produce a catch in the throat, an effortful push from the torso, the kind of performative gestures toward deep emotion that are the cheap currency of opera. Such gestures were aesthetically unappealing and also technically problematic, destabilizing Bezcala’s air column, spreading his pitch, and turning his dynamic modulations into a series of steps rather than a curve.

How different he was in four songs from Wolf-Ferrari (Op. 12, no. 1, and Op. 11, nos. 2–4), and six songs from Respighi. These were well-crafted works full of musical content, and they seemed to stimulate Beczała’s imagination. He was committed to the art of the music and sounded much more like himself, smooth and glowing, expressing feeling through notes and phrases rather than gestures. Wolf-Ferrari’s supple lines had a special appeal, Beczała singing like he enjoyed each little surprising turn in, or extension of, a phrase. The Op. 11, No. 3 “E tanto c’è pericol ch’io ti lasci” had an excellent balance of technique and intensity.

Beczała sang the Respighi songs this same way, with the right blend of operatic weight and recital precision. The strongest of the set were the tone-painting songs, “Nevicata,” “Pioggia,” and “Nebbie.” That last, “Mists,” had the tenor singing the evocative poetry about death with great beauty. These brought out the best in Katz as well, who had a bright and light touch all evening, filling in the gaps while never occluding his partner.

The selections on the second half were consistently strong, with Szymanowski’s Six Songs, Op. 2 followed by seven songs from Karlowicz. The conclusions was four songs from Stanislaw Moniuszko, who according to the program notes “was the creator of Polish Romantic song.”

This was an involving collection of art songs, music organized around the composers’ internal response to the poetry they set—effect without affect. Driven by this music, Beczała’s singing had an added layer of luster and focus, and Katz seemed energized as well. Like the Wolf-Ferrari songs, the two showed a particular pleasure in Szymanowski’s fluid horizontal movement.

Starting with the Six Songs, Bezcala shed a sense of playing to the audience almost entirely. In turn, they responded with even greater passion throughout the second half, turned on by this increased artfulness. The tenor delivered the deepest satisfactions of the evening, singing from inside the music, gliding through phrases, trusting the notes and the words to give him all the passion he needed. Moniuszko’s songs, something like Schubert in their direct earthiness and with a strong national flavor—the last was “The Krakow Boy”—were meaty, attractive, and fun.

Still, Beczała showed what are likely habits deeply ingrained from the opera stage and more appropriate there (though not always welcome). In particular, his falsetto notes were lovely and it was impressive how he sang them with a sustained, focussed, pianissimo, but they were always parenthesized with a wait-for-it to start and a wasn’t-that-something at the end.

This was gone, though, with his relaxed encores—two pithy songs from Karlowicz, “Songs My Mother Taught Me” by Dvorak and Strauss’s “Zueignung”—the expression was playful and did nothing to mar the warm feeling of singing with a generous and personal touch.

Soprano Julia Bullock sings Schubert, Barber’s Hermit Songs, and more, 7:30 p.m., April 20.

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