Polenzani kicks off a virtual Vocal Arts DC season with strong program

Wed Dec 02, 2020 at 8:19 am

By Charles T. Downey

Matthew Polenzani’s streaming recital opens Vocal Arts DC’s virtual season this week. Photo: Faymous

After hearing last spring that most of their subscribers did not feel comfortable attending live concerts until a coronavirus vaccine was widely available, Vocal Arts DC decided to offer a virtual season. 

The presenter is releasing the first in a series of high-quality video recordings to ticket holders today. Tenor Matthew Polenzani recorded this recital last month in Westchester County, New York, adhering to strict public health protocols.

The format of these recorded concerts is ideal, adding up to roughly the amount of music one would hear in person. The talking is limited to a brief introduction, here offered by Vocal Arts honorary board member Frederica von Stade, and concise comments by Polenzani before each set, much like what a singer would offer on stage. With high-quality speakers or headphones and a quiet room, you can almost imagine you are at the Kennedy Center.

Polenzani assembled a program both familiar and novel. An opening set of Schubert songs zeroed in on the pain of solitude pervading the composer’s work, all the more poignant during this period of social isolation. The sweet melody of “Der Einsame,” in which chirping crickets break the silence of a lonely man’s room, floated ethereally. Pianist Natalia Katyukova applied a subtle touch at the keyboard, pacing herself expertly to the expansive rubato of her singer.

At times the air of nostalgia threatened to overwhelm the performance, as in the pair’s rendition of “Ständchen,” where the tempo was stretched almost to the breaking point. The final Schubert song, “Im Abendrot,” benefited most from the floated, crooning quality of Polenzani’s high register at soft dynamics. 

Polenzani seemed more at ease in other music. One of the high points was Gerald Finzi’s A Young Man’s Exhortation, set to intensely personal poetry by Thomas Hardy. In the third song, “Budmouth Dears,” Polenzani’s top notes rang with confidence in the lusty refrain. Katyukova’s handling of the enigmatic introduction and postlude of “The Comet at Yell’ham,” inspired by Hardy’s sighting of this celestial phenomenon, gave a mysterious, astronomical sheen to the piece.

“The Sigh” could easily collapse under the weight of its own sentimentality, but Polenzani and Katyukova sweetened the air of reminiscence without cloying. Finzi’s harmonic language, at once modern and folkloric, suited especially the last two songs, where the longing for past loves was replaced by comfort at the thought of impending death.

The Op. 24 Liederkreis was a welcome dose of Schumann, the first of two song sets known by this title. This group is set to poetry of Heinrich Heine, and the dark tone of the words took on different meanings in the era of the coronavirus, as with the fear of death present in “Lieb’ Liebchen,” where the narrator hears a carpenter making his coffin in the next room. Kaytukova provided most of the spark, with impetuous power in the demanding accompaniments of the more dramatic songs, such as “Es treibt mich hin.”

Katyukova negotiated the challenges of the populist-tinged accompaniments of Poulenc’s Fiançailles pour rire. Polenzani’s French pronunciation was not quite as polished as his German, especially in the tongue-twisting “Il vole,” but both musicians captured the odd, sometimes nonsensical fun of the poetry by Marie Louise de Vilmorin. “Violon,” a sort of perverse waltz, evoked the smoky interior of a forgotten dive somewhere in Paris.

The final set, five songs by Charles Ives, brought us full circle, with the American composer channeling Schumann’s high romanticism in “Feldeinsamkeit.” More of the American maverick’s own character came through in “Memories,” set to the composer’s own goofy texts and complete with musical effects like whistling and humming. Both halves of this song felt equally affecting, especially the idea of being in an opera house and waiting for the curtain to rise, a feeling audiences will not experience for months to come.

After eight months of near-total silence in terms of live performance, likely no encore choice would have seemed too maudlin. Rachmaninoff’s “When Night Descends,” sung in an English translation, swooned with feeling. Even “Danny Boy,” one of Polenzani’s favorite encores, gets no jaded critiques in these circumstances, especially when sung with this singer’s heartfelt sincerity and dulcet head voice.

Matthew Polenzani’s concert can be streamed through December 11. Recorded recitals by bass-baritone Davóne Tines and soprano Lise Davidsen will be available in January and February 2021. vocalartsdc.org

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