Tuesday 25 September 2012

Lawrence Brownlee - Rosenblatt Recitals

Singers who make their name in the opera house can find that creating recital programmes needs different, complementary skills. The public, who have come to know the singer’s operatic work, will be disappointed if the singer does not include some operatic arias. The remainder of the programme requires some imagination and ingenuity. One of the appealing facets of the Rosenblatt Recitals series is the chance it gives not only to hear new and interesting operatic talent, but to see how they face the challenge of creating a recital programme. Opening the new Rosenblatt Recitals series at the Wigmore Hall on 24 September, tenor Lawrence Brownlee with Iain Burnside on the piano, made some interesting choices. But it was very much a programme of two halves with the audience keen to hear Brownlee in the operatic arias in the second half. And they were not disappointed.

Brownlee opened with four of Verdi’s  Sei Romanze, the first volume of which were published in 1838. These songs never approach the complexity or interest of Verdi’s operatic work and they are written in the conventional idiom of the salon song. Brownlee opened with Ad una stella, with the simple but graceful melody displaying his voice well. Brownlee has a rich, surprisingly dark voice with a tight vibrato round a strong core, giving the voice an attractive grainy quality.

The second song, Lo spazzacamino is a comic song about a chimney sweep, complete with the chimney sweep’s call. Brownlee showed a nice comic talent here, delightfully putting the song over, though his performance was all rather large scale. For Il Tramonto the scale did become more intimate with a nicely spun line, but I felt that Brownlee could have given more light and shade. Brindisi was the most developed of the songs, Verdi revised it in 1869 and the piano part finally gave Iain Burnside piano writing of interest.

These songs are quite tricky to bring off and I think that Brownlee approached them from too large a scale, the size and beauty of his voice dominated the performances. The moments when he scaled back and risked a more intimate delivery worked the best.

Brownlee followed these with a group of Poulenc songs. For these his delivery altered, with his voice taking a more intimate tone, far less monochrome in colour. First came Montparnasse, Poulenc’s setting of Apollinaire’s nostalgic poem. It is a very wordy song, and Brownlee needed to make far more of the words, to colour them even more; it was the brief lyrical melodic flowerings in the song which worked best.

For me, these problems continued into Voyage a Paris, where the voice did not seem to have enough smile or lightness in it and again, words were not sufficiently to the fore. But within his own parameters, the performance worked and the audience were most appreciative.

‘C’ suited Brownlee better, with its long lines and melancholy mood. He and Burnside aptly captured the change in tone at the end, when the poet refers to the war. By contrast, Brownlee threw off the cascades of words in Reine des mouettes with insouciance. Finally in Bleuet another beautifully melancholy song.

In all the Poulenc, I kept coming back to the fact that there were not enough words, that Brownlee was not colouring individual words enough and relying too much on the beauty of his voice. Simply, there was too much vocal tone and not enough text.

For the conclusion to the first half, Brownlee sang four songs by the contemporary American songwriter Ben Moore (born 1960). Moore is basically self taught and writes in an attractively melodic style. The four songs sung by Brownlee were settings of W. B. Yeats and James Joyce, The Cloak, The Boat and The Shoes, This heart that flutters, I would in that sweet bosom be and The Lake Isle of Innisfree. Moore writes well-made songs and in their melodic felicity, they are very attractive and very communicative. Brownlee clearly relaxed when he sang these, appreciating the ability to sing to the audience in their own language using a flatteringly lyric musical style.

In another age, Moore’s songs would have been classed as light music, and there is no problem with that. The came over as a slightly developed version of a well made broadway ballad, which takes appreciable skill. My problem arose from Moore’s choice of texts and the way that, particularly in the Joyce settings, his songs rather sentimentalised the poetry.

After the interval we saw an entirely different Lawrence Brownlee. One that was entirely in control and used his voice with stupendous technical skill, with carefully controlled effects. He gave us four arias by Rossini and one by Mozart.

He opened with Don Narcisso’s aria, Tu second ail mio disegno from Il Turco in Italia followed by Un’aura amorosa from Mozart’s Cosi van tutte. Then Idreno’s aria Ah! dov'e il cimento from Rossini’s Semiramide, Malcolm’s O fiamma soave from La donna del Lago and finally Ilo’s Terra amica, ove respira from Zelmire.

Brownlee’s Mozart was beautiful, with a lovely sense of shape and line; a well filled line, this was quite a big boned Romantic performance. But none the worse for that.

His Rossini was quite simply dazzlingly stupendous. All the four arias were substantial, generally two part showing Rossini playing with variants of the cavatina/cabaletta convention. Each aria was brim full with cascades of notes. Brownlee’s technical achievement in simply singing the notes was amazing, but he managed to integrate them into the line of the music, acuti also, so that each aria felt like a real musical performance and not just a technical showpiece. The gusts and flurries of notes were shaped into something musical.

He brought far more colour and shade to the pieces than he did in the first half. And though in many ways the arias were all quite similar in style, it was impressive the way he did manage to differentiate between them and to interpret Rossini’s music. O fiamma soave brought from him some great beauty of tone. Terra amica, ove respire was probably the most elaborate of the four, and received a stupendous performance.

There was one encore, after all how could you top the Rossini. Brownlee sang a simple but effective arrangement of the spiritual Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.

Iain Burnside provided his customary sympathetic and intelligent support, though it was really only in the Poulenc that we could really begin to appreciate his skill.

Brownlee has a charming stage personality which did not always come over in this recital, which was a shame. It was definitely a recital of two halves, with the tour-de-force of Brownlee’s performance in the second half knocking the first half into the shade. As a recital, this programme requires some further thought and work. But there is no questioning Brownlee’s astonishing virtuosity and intelligence when performing Rossini. More please!

Recent Reviews:

The Sixteen at the Hatfield Chamber Music Festival. (23/09/2012)

Hatfield Chamber Music Festival at Hatfield House (21/09/2012)

Eugene Onegin, Grange Park Rising Stars at Cadogan Hall (20/09/2012)

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