Classical Music Review: The Astounding Tenor Matthew Polenzani

By Susan Miron

The fabulously gifted tenor Matthew Polenzani

The world of tenors has expanded exponentially, it would seem, since the days when Luciano Pavoratti and Placido Domingo dominated the big tenor roles and the attention of the media and opera-loving public. Domingo, astonishingly, is still singing brilliantly, conducting, and running an opera company, but recently there have been a good half dozen excellent, youngish tenors singing at the Met, including the fabulously gifted lyric tenor Matthew Polenzani.

Mr. Polenzani, who made his Celebrity Series debut last Thursday, is a far cry from the narcissistic Divo one might expect from someone of his reputation. He’s been awarded the big prizes—the 2004 Richard Tucker Music Foundation Award and the 2008 Beverly Sills Artist Award— had great success in his increasingly larger roles at the Met, and his CDs and recitals have won wildly enthusiastic acclaim. Those at the concert at Jordan Hall knew exactly who—and how great—he was. Yet although his Boston fans were there ecstatically cheering, it was nevertheless a smallish crowd.

For his U.S. tour with his frequent collaborator, British pianist Julius Drake, Mr. Polenzani is performing Franz Schubert’s (1797–1828) “Die Schöne Müllerin” D. 795, a song cycle of 20 songs set to the poems of Wilhelm Müller (1794–1827). One of Schubert’s two great song cycles (the other is “Winterreise”) “Die Schöne Müllerin” is one of those boy (a happy wanderer) meets girl (the Müllerin, the miller’s daughter), thinks he’s crazy in love, imagines girl loves another (a hunter), becomes utterly dejected, and decides to die stories. Through it all runs a benign, bubbling brook, his friend and confidante, to whom the singer/the wanderer addresses his infatuation, his dreams of having the lovely maiden say yes, she loves him; and his anxiety about where things are, or aren’t, going romantically.

British pianist Julius Drake — an ideal recital partner.

What distinguishes this song cycle from any number of romantic songs or stories about love gone awry (or nowhere at all) are the musical settings by Schubert, one of the greatest prose-setters of all time. A pianist is nearly as important as the singer in this cycle, so much so that collaborations usually speak of both musicians, not just the singer (Peter Pears, tenor and Benjamin Britten, his pianist; Dietrich Fischer-Diskau with pianist András Schiff). The team of Polenzani and Julius Drake will, no doubt, join the pantheon of singers who found their ideal recital partner. Mr. Drake, more known in England than in the U.S., set the stage for each of the shifting panoply of mood swings endured by the singer.

His playing was as expressive as Mr Polenzani’s melting tenor throughout their voyage from elation to dejection and finally through the final song, “The Brook’s Lullaby,” when the brook speaks to the wanderer who is now at home at the bottom of its water. Everything and everyone who had hurt the wanderer is told to depart. “Sleep away your joy, Sleep away your pain,” the brook comforts his old friend.

I don’t remember a more beautiful vocal recital, even in this year of frenetic concert-going. Mr. Polenzani returned with Mr. Drake after many curtain calls—how does one follow this? he asked rhetorically. “It’s really quite a complete thing.” And the answer was, with more Schubert, “Abendrot” (“Twilight”) Most of us would have been happy to sit through another “Schöne Mullerin.”

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