Tuesday 23 October 2012

Rosenblatt Recitals - Joel Prieto and Iain Burnside

Tenor Joel Prieto will not be entirely unknown to Londoners, he shared a Rosenblatt Recital in 2010 and was Fenton in the recent Falstaff at Covent Garden. His return to Rosenblatt Recitals for his first complete recital, on 22 October, also saw him making his Wigmore Hall debut, with Iain Burnside at the piano. Prieto is Spanish born, raised in Puerto Rico and trained in New York. His recent repertoire, besides Fenton, has included Ferrando and Don Ottavio and plans include Don Pasquale and L’elisir damore. He has a lovely lyric tenor voice, which he showed off with imagination in a recital that took in Mozart and Beethoven plus composers from Puerto Rico and Latin America.

Prieto and Burnside opened with a trio of works by Mozart. The first was the occasional aria, Tali e contanti sono written when Mozart was ten to compliment Prince-Archbishop Sigismund von Schrattenbach. The piece was brilliant for a ten-year-old, but very correct and a trifle too long. Prieto sang this (and all the Mozart pieces) from memory, displaying a vibrant lyric voice and a nice sense of style, combining an elegant line with a sense of drama and an engaging stage presence.  Ridente la calma is an aria that was probably written by Mozart as a teaching piece, based on an existing aria by his friend Josef Myslivecek, though we don’t know for certain. It is a nicely proper piece which Prieto sang with a beautifully shaped vocal line. The last of the Mozart group, Abendempfindung, is perhaps Mozart’s greatest lieder. Prieto was highly communicative here, with good clear German and a fine line.

The remainder of the second half was devoted to Beethoven’s song cycle An die ferne Geliebte setting poems by Alois Isidor Jeitteles. Prieto’s account of the cycle was engaging and involving, he was not frightened of singing quietly and some of the most intense singing came in the quiet moments such as the middle section of Wo die Berge so blau. At times, though his performance was vibrant, I felt that he seemed a little constrained. Partly, perhaps, by singing from the printed word rather from memory, but also by the language. Though his German was clear, he needed to make more of it, songs like Leichte Segler in den Hohen require the singer to dig rather deeper into the words than Prieto was doing.

To a certain extent, he seemed content to be singing with a beautifully elegant line and finely shaped melody, and for much of the time this worked well. But by the time we came to his touching account of the final song, Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder, he showed that he was, at his best, capable of so much more.

Prieto was accompanied by the consummately accomplished Iain Burnside at the piano. The songs from the cycle are not separate but flow into each other and Burnside contributed some lovely transitions between the songs.

(At the interval I bumped into Wasfi Kani, founder and Chief Executive of Grange Park Opera. We both commented to each other that this was the first time that either of us had heard An die ferne Geliebte live in concert, a tribute to the imagination that went into the recital.)

Often in recitals, you sense a constraint in the first half and the singer relaxes in the second, particularly if there are songs in their native language. Whilst Prieto was noticeably comfortable in the second half, changing his shirt into a more casual dark one. This is not to denigrate his performance in the Mozart and Beethoven; he was admirably communicative, with a tendency to treat each song as a small drama. He had a very vivid way of singing which involved much body and arm movement. He has a very engaging manner and a very elegant way with his voice which reminded me a little of Alfredo Kraus. I certainly hope he keeps the same sensible control of his career that he seems to be showing at the moment.

For the second half, we had a journey into mainly unknown territory. Apart from one Spaniard, the remainder were Puerto Rican or South American. It wasn’t just the change of continent. Though all the composers were active in the 20th century (and some the 21st), you sense a different tradition in which the modernist influences of 20th century Western European music were less apparent. These influences were not absent entirely, but they formed just one thread, lightly influencing harmony, with the sense of Spanish and Latin American folk-lore dominant. All the songs were sung in Spanish, with Prieto again singing from memory.

He opened with El ojo de agua (The Waterhole) by Narciso Figuera (1906-2004). Figuera was born in Puerto Rico and became Professor and Director of the piano department at the Puerto Rico Conservatoire. El ojo de agua comes from his set Canciones de Puerto Rico (Songs of Puerto Rico). The melody line was very folk-influenced, with a rippling piano part that hinted at the exotic. Prieto allowed the vocal line to develop from simple lyricism to intense passion.

This was followed by a pair of songs by Alberto Ginastera (1916 - 1983), one of the best known names amongst the composers in the second half of the recital. Triste had a strong feeling of improvisation, with the voice entering almost unaccompanied. It was a passionate but complex piece which Prieto gave with an intense, fully engaged performance. Burnside provided sympathetic support with the fascinating but sometimes complex piano part. The second Ginastera song Cancion del arbol del olvido (Song of the Tree of Forgetting) was a more traditional feeling song, but still given an intense performance by Prieto. Burnside provided some lovely piano ritornelli between the verses.

The next pair of songs took our voyage even further into the unknown as the details were not printed in the programme and no announcement was made. So my comments had to be made blind. The first song was charming and short, rather traditional in style. The second had a lovely flowing piano part, with a very passionate vocal line. Again very traditional, but both songs were very approachable, very charming, very effective. The second song included Prieto’s humming of the song’s very haunting melody. Quite lovely.

Thanks to the wonders of Twitter, courtesy of Iain Burnside, I now know that the songs were Con amores, la mi madre and Del cabello mas sutil by Fernando J. Obradors (1897 - 1945) from Dos cantares popolares.

Next came a pair of songs by Ernesto Cordero (born 1946) who was born in New York but raised in Puerto Rico. He studied at the Conservatoire there and at the Madrid Royal Conservatory; he teaches at Puerto Rico University. Pregunta is a passionate and rather wistful intimate song, with a piano part that was by turns fascinating, spiky and haunting. Cordero introduced interesting wide musical intervals into what would otherwise be quite a conventional song. La voz del guiro has a patriotic element to it has it talks of the Grey Kingbird which is a nationalist symbol in Puerto Rico. The song itself was rather understated, given a quietly intense performance by Prieto with a dying fall.

The next pair of songs were by the other composer known to me, Carlos Guastavino (1912-200), one of the best loved Latin American composers of the 20th century. Argentinian by birth, Guastavino produced around 200 songs many based on the folk music of his native country. Se equivoco la paloma (The dove was mistaken) was a very traditional sounding song, given a passionate performance by Prieto, with a lovely melody which Guastavino varied between each of the strophes. La rosa y el sauce (The rose and the willow) was more exotic, with a haunting melody which Prieto sang with great lyric beauty which certainly did not preclude passion as well. A profoundly beautiful song, beautifully performed.

Maria Grever (1894-1951) must certainly be the answer to one of those awkward quiz questions, ‘Which pupil of Debussy’s worked for Paramount and wrote songs for the 1944 Esther Williams musical Bathing Beauties’ Grever did indeed have lessons from Debussy. And she also worked for Paramount from 1920. She wrote more than 800 songs, most of them in one key and most of them boleros! Te quiero dijiste (also known as Munequita linda or Magic is the moonlight) was an infectiously attractive song, with a lovely piano part and a great melody line. Prieto and Burnside clearly had great fun performing it.

The final song in the recital was by Pablo Sorozabal (1897-1988), this was a further change to the printed programme and Sorozabal was not Latin American but Basque. He trained in Spain, Leipzig and Berlin. From 1931 he wrote twenty or so zarzuelas. His song, No puede ser from La tabernera del puerto (Sorozabal's most popular zarzuela, premiered in 1936) was passionate and dramatic and reminded both me and my companion of Cavelleria Rusticana.

We were treated to two encores. The first, Una furtiva lagrima, saw Prieto demonstrating his finesse and elegance in the Italian repertoire with an elegant line, lovely shape to the phrases, a free open tone which was even all the way to the top. The second encore was different again, Non ti scordar di me a song made popular by Gigli and Mario Lanza. Prieto’s performance and commitment making up for the rather salon-ish style of the music.

Prieto’s performance in this recital impressed considerably, for the elegance of his vocal line, his engaging platform manner and his highly communicative performance. Providing he does not seek to sing heavier music too soon, then he should have a very fine future. I look forward to hearing him again soon, and hope for his return to the London opera platform.

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