A memorable performance of a Janáček rarity from Polenzani at Zankel Hall

Mon Feb 25, 2019 at 3:14 pm
Matthew Polenzani performed Leos Janáček's "The Diary of One Who Disappeared" Sunday at Zankel Hall. Photo: Jennifer Taylor

Matthew Polenzani performed Leos Janáček’s “The Diary of One Who Disappeared” Sunday at Zankel Hall. Photo: Jennifer Taylor

Tenor Matthew Polenzani is a mainstay at the Metropolitan Opera and one of the more popular singers in classical music—not only for his engaging voice and terrific performances but also for his easy-going, regular-guy manner. 

Sunday afternoon in Zankel Hall offered the opportunity to hear him in the intimate setting of a recital, and both his personal and musical qualities were on glowing display,

This was a superb two hours of music, and something more than a recital. Polenzani, accompanied by pianist Julius Drake, was the main draw, but mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano was also on hand to take a solo turn and to join Polenzani in the exceptional second half.

The program was also way beyond the run-of-the-mill. Polenzani did open the concert with a handful of Schubert’s best-known songs, then followed them with the less common An die ferne Geliebte cycle by Beethoven.

Polenzani’s singing in the first half was just what one expected. He has a prototypical warm, graceful lyric tenor, with an easy quality in every part of his range. His technical command and timbral beauty pave the way for strong, clear characterizations.

The Schubert songs showed some of his expressive range as well as his personal charm. (After the opening “Nachtstücak,” he said to those coughing, “Go ahead, I feel your pain.”) Beginning with that lied’s somber beauty, Polenzani gave off a youthful energy with a guilelessness perfect for Schubert’s own brand of transparency and sincerity. 

The tenor’s phrasing, the rise and fall of weight through the lines, the emphasis on what for him were the key points, had a straightforwardness and trust in the basics of music-making that opened up the depths and beauty of the songs.

The sequence was smartly arranged, with mystery giving way to the pleasures of spring and nature in “Im Frühling,” “Frühlingsglaube,” and “Der Einsame,” then wrapped up with an interpretation of “Ständchen” that had a spellbinding inevitability, and a limpid and grave “Im Abendrot.”

Polenzani was matched by Drake. His playing was as simple as could be, his rhythms absolutely steady. He accomplished the difficult feat of playing in an unaffected way that sounded elegant and meaningful, not stolid. 

There was plenty of drama in the Beethoven cycle as well. Adding more weight to his voice, Polenzani sang with the full range of colors at his command and a quicksilver flow of emotion that channeled the romantic impetuous essence of the songs.

Cano ended the first half with Brahms’ Zigeunerlieder.

Adorned by the cafe-style music Brahms heard around Vienna, the Zigeunerlieder made something of an intermezzo, a refreshing bit of near-informal social music making. Even decked out in an elegant, formal gown, Cano performed like she was weaving through tables in a cafe, singing directly to one patron, then another.

The “Gypsy Songs,” also made an apt prelude to the second half, which was dedicated to The Diary of one Who Disappeared, Leos Janáček’s work about a young farmer who finds himself entranced by a Roma woman.

The cycle is an extraordinary work by one of the finest of opera composers—not just an integrated set of songs but a great musical drama itself. Wrapped up in the composer’s deep infatuation with a much younger, unobtainable woman, the story came from a series of poems published in a local paper, the purported diary entries of a young farmer’s son who disappeared into the woods, following the gypsy girl he had fallen in love with. Though in verse—and ready to be set into song—the story is set in plain language.

The tale and narrative style is a perfect fit for Janáček’s psychology and the unique music it produced. The young man, Jan, catches a glimpse of the girl, Zefka, and is lost. His sings of his thoughts, both to himself and his oxen, and tries to distract himself with his farm work. Zefka appears, sung by Cano, and the songs become dialogue. 

Cano was excellent, letting the music flow with a pure sound and just the slightest inflection, sounding like a woman who knows the power of her beauty and wields it with honesty and love. (A Greek chorus-like trio of soprano Kathleen O’Mara and mezzos Marie Engle and Megan Esther Grey briefly contributed to the narrative from the mezzanine.)

A main theme that keeps returning in the piano has that peculiar, special Janáček sound of nostalgia and physical yearning. There is an extended piano solo that Drake ripped out, playing from deep inside the music.

Polenzani, who was so buttery in the first half, was more blunt and intense in this music. His voice was wide open and powerful, physical but never stressed even as he pushed the expressive limits of passion and anxiety. His Czech articulation was excellent. Janāček worked with the natural rhythms of speech, and most performances by non-native speakers have quirky rhythms; but Polenzani sounded so natural throughout that he was more Jan than he was himself.

This was a tremendous and gripping performance, one could smell the earth and the sweat, feel the eroticism of Zefka singing about where Jan would find white flesh along with her dark, sunburned skin. Polenzani delivered Jan’s anxiety and transformation, as he bids goodbye to his family and goes to join the gypsy camp, Zefka, and his newborn son.

After such a powerful and intense performance, Polenzani prefaced his encore by pointing out how hard it was to chose the proper music to follow “such a journey” without dispelling the mood. He then sang what he said was the song he is most asked for, “Danny Boy.” It was so simple and beautiful as to warm even a cynic’s heart.

Countertenor Iestyn Davies and lutenist Thomas Dunford perform Dowland, Purcell, and Handel, 7:30 p.m. May 16 carnegiehall.org

One Response to “A memorable performance of a Janáček rarity from Polenzani at Zankel Hall”

  1. Posted Feb 26, 2019 at 2:01 am by Francine Rosemberg

    Your review pretty much reflects my feelings about Matthew Polenzani’s concert. I would appreciate being on your mailing list. Thanks.

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