Sir Bryn Terfel (bass-baritone) with Annabel Thwaite (piano) at Koerner Hall, Saturday, April 30, 2022.
Toronto classical voice fans have reason to rejoice after suffering through a long two-year drought due to the pandemic. In a span of twelve days in April, two great singers appeared on the acoustically friendly Koerner Hall stage, a venue of choice for many visiting vocalists.
On April 19, American mezzo Joyce DiDonato wowed Toronto audiences with Eden, a themed-based show celebrating the power and beauty of nature. Then, last evening, it was the Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel’s turn. It marked his return to Koerner Hall after an absence of six years and four days.
Terfel leapt to fame as a result of the 1989 Cardiff Singers of the World Competition, in what is now coined the legendary Battle of the Baritones, the Welshman versus Dmitri Hvorostovsky. While the Siberian won the title Singer of the World, Terfel received the Song Prize, a newly established honour at the time.
After his Cardiff success, Terfel made a huge splash in most of the great opera houses of the world, including the Met, of course, where he sang Figaro, Don Giovanni, Wolfram, Falstaff, Scarpia, and Wotan. The past few seasons, his preference to stay closer to his home base meant that he sang mostly in the UK and Europe, with rare appearances on this side of the pond. This Koerner recital is therefore a special occasion.
Last evening, the audience was treated to a lovely program of Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms, interspersed with songs by three British composers: Roger Quilter, Ralph Vaughn Williams and Gerald Finzi. Any Terfel event is more than just his beautiful voice; his charismatic persona is part of his “package.” He is fond of kibbitzing with the audience during the show and especially during encores, all part of his charm.
He certainly has a loyal following in Toronto. In his 2016 recital, Koerner Hall was sold out, even the choir loft was jammed. This time around? Not so much, sadly, due to the lingering effects of the pandemic on attendance. Yes, even for a top-notch artist like Terfel. That said, those in attendance made up for it with their unbridled enthusiasm. I spotted quite a few singers in the audience, a sure sign that people in the business hold Bryn Terfel in high regard.
The concert opened with a program change – four Schubert pieces were replaced by three different ones by the same composer. A check of my 2016 review showed that the replaced pieces were on the program six years ago, a smart move lest Toronto music fans have long memories! No matter, any Schubert is welcome, especially chestnuts the likes of “Ständchen” and “An Silvia.”
Terfel began somewhat cautiously, using a lot of mezza voce. When high notes were called for, these were produced with some effort and forte. As a result, the vocal line was often distorted. There was also a hint of a slow vibrato in long held notes. This continued through the Roger Quilter songs and Vier ernste Gesänge by Brahms. The expressivity, the attention to textual nuances, and the overall musicality were all there to be sure, but at least on this occasion somewhat hampered by caution and a diminution of vocal freedom.
The second half went considerably smoother for Terfel, singing with firmer tone and a greater sense of freedom. Perhaps it could simply mean that he was tackling more congenial repertoire. His evocative singing of the Songs of Travel by Vaughan Williams was lovely, bringing back memories of a previous recital I heard nearly two decades ago. His “Whither Must I Wander” is a desert island recording in my book. The Gerald Finzi song cycle, “Let Us Garlands Bring,” which shares some of the same texts as the Quilter songs, gave the listener another interpretive angle, equally touching.
And I mustn’t forget to offer my sincere kudos to the superb work of pianist Annabel Thwaite, who deserved the highest praise for her sensitivity and support of the singer. She received a well-deserved ovation at the end.
The formal part of the recital closed with three Celtic Songs by Beethoven, works not frequently encountered in recital but well worth exploring. Although using the score, Terfel delivered these with vivid imagination and communicative power. For encores, Terfel treated the audience with three lovely Ivor Novello numbers, including the sublime “We’ll Gather Lilacs,” and the equally gorgeous “I can give you the Starlight.” Schmaltzy to 21st Century audiences, but for those of a certain age, including yours truly, these were parting gifts from Terfel.
The final encore, and the only opera aria of the evening, was a piece he also used to end his 2016 recital – “Son lo spirito” from Boito’s Mefistofele, complete with the loudest whistle in the business. There were a few whistlers in the audience who decided to join in the fun, and now they can say “I’ve whistled with Terfel!” Given that Sir Bryn has been singing for over three decades, in some of the heaviest roles the likes of Wotan and Dutchman, last evening was not a recital for the ages. But nobody can entertain like him, and I am pretty sure the audience went home happy.
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