Polish and Czech songs shine in Piotr Beczała recital for Vocal Arts DC

Thu May 04, 2017 at 12:32 pm
By Seth Arenstein

Piotr Beczała performed a recital for Vocal Arts DC Wednesday night at the University of DC Theatre of the Arts

Pity those patrons who left during the intermission of tenor Piotr Beczała’s recital Wednesday evening at the University of the District of Columbia’s Theatre of the Arts. The Polish tenor opened his Vocal Arts DC appearance with the largest work on the program, Schumann’s Dichterliebe, but he was at his best in the more varied second half. 

As Schumann was composing Dichterliebe, he was in a tumultuous courtship of the pianist who eventually would become his wife, Clara Wieck. His writing reflected the emotional instability that he was experiencing.

While Beczała’s singing had moments of warmth and beauty, overall this Dichterliebe was uneven, an uncertain beginning marked by coordination issues between Beczała and pianist Martin Katz. Dichterliebe pairs Schumann’s angst-ridden music with the poetry of Heinrich Heine in a cycle that at times treats the piano as an equal to the tenor. In the first few songs Beczała seemed to have trouble projecting over his usually sensitive accompanist, and the muscle required compromised the beauty of his tenor. The dry acoustic of the venue did little to help the situation.

Beczała and Katz overcame this problem by the time of the sixth song, “Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome,” which provided a glimpse of the artistry to come, with pianist Katz reducing his volume, allowing Beczała to sing with less effort. 

Beczała’s tone improved around the time of the wonderful “Hör’ ich das Liedchen klingen,” as Katz played softly throughout. In the sprightly “Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen,” the handsome singer seemed most comfortable, and Katz provided a beautiful version of the long piano coda.

Among the many treats of this cycle are the varied piano accompaniments that Schumann composed. One of the more memorable of these, ironically, is the spare piano part in “Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet,” which relates the poet’s nightmare of finding his lover in her grave. In this song, Schumann created a call-and-response effect between the two performers, with the tenor singing as the piano is silent. Once the tenor sings a phrase, the piano responds with a brief line. The song ends abruptly, with the piano stopping in mid phrase. Beczała and Katz performed this song in an appropriate atmosphere of darkness.

The recital’s second half offered a rare chance to hear music by Mieczysław Karłowicz, the Polish composer whose promising life ended in a tragic skiing accident at age 33 in 1909. Opening with six songs by his countryman, Beczała’s confidence level seemed higher, much to the benefit of his sound, which now was open and resonant, despite a few struggles with high notes. In the fourth song, “Z erotyków,” Beczała combined power with great ardor. The final Karłowicz selection, the lovely “Pamiętam ciche, jasne, złote dnie” (“I remember quiet, clear golden days”) had Beczała ending softly, on a high note. It was the most effective moment of the night to that point.

In full voice now, Beczała turned to Dvorák’s Cigánské melodie (Gypsy Songs) in Czech, combining vocal strength with beauty in the popular Když mne stará matka” (“Songs my mother taught me”). Following the Dvorák were four songs by Rachmaninoff, written early in his life, before the composer left Russia. Beczała’s performance in Russian of “A Dream” (with lyrics based on a Heine poem), “Lilacs,” “Sing not to me, fair maiden,” and “Spring Waters,” made one want to explore this less-often-heard portion of Rachmaninoff’s output.

By the recital’s end, Beczała’s had won over the audience, which called loudly for encores. Here Beczała was at his best, dispatching with gusto a pair of popular Italian encores, Leoncavallo’s “Mattinata” and the Caruso favorite, “Core ‘ngrato (Catari, Catari),” by Salvatore Cardillo and Riccardo Cordiferro.

In the 2017-18 season Vocal Arts DC will present recitals by baritone Andrei Bondarenko, mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught, soprano Dorothea Röschmann, tenor Christoph Prégardien, among others. vocalartsdc.org;  202-669-1463.

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