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Lawrence Brownlee: Lieder & Song Recital
18 Apr 2006

Lawrence Brownlee: Lieder & Song Recital

A few years ago I picked up a buzz among those close to the Seattle Opera Young Artists’ Program that there would be a truly remarkable young tenor in the program’s production of La Cenerentola that year.

Lawrence Brownlee: Lieder & Song Recital

Lawrence Brownlee, tenor, Martin Katz, piano

EMI Classics 7243 586503 2 [CD]

$6.48  Click to buy

Indeed, Lawrence Brownlee’s beautiful voice and astonishing ease of delivery in the vocally challenging role of Ramiro made it clear why he was already scheduled to make his debut at La Scala later that year. Bel canto lovers who haven’t caught him yet there or at the Met, or at any of the many other venues where he has sung since then, can now hear him courtesy of EMI Classics “Debut” series.

The program consists of songs in Italian by the familiar figures: Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, and Rossini, along with four Italian songs written by Franz Schubert several years after studying with Antonio Salieri. According to Brownlee’s comments in the CD booklet, he and accompanying pianist Martin Katz chose these songs to “work programmatically, be enjoyable for the listener, and be meaningful for us to perform”. Cutting the swath that they do through the heartland of Brownlee’s home repertoire, they also serve as a fine showcase for the tenor’s outstanding quality: the ringing, forward delivery of beautifully phrased Italian that just doesn’t quit, whether he is soaring above the staff, spinning a long legato line or lightly skipping through a coloratura passage.

Any of these tracks can serve as a textbook example of how well-produced bel canto singing is at once exciting and relaxing for the listener—the sound flows so easily, no matter where the musical line goes with respect to the staff, or how many notes the phrase contains, that we can simply allow ourselves to be carried along with it. What I find missing here are the pianissimo passages that add a meltingly beautiful contrast to the bright ring, creating the paradox of even deeper emotion in the hush than in the exclamation. (I don’t remember noticing this lack when I heard him before, and I can’t help wondering whether the experience he has had singing in larger houses since then has pushed him toward making a larger sound overall.) The result is that the recital as a whole is not as interesting to listen to as it could be, although there is certainly a lot to admire in its performance.

Richard Wigmore in the CD booklet describes the Vier Canzonen of Schubert as suggesting “Mozart filtered through Rossini”, and indeed I am reminded of “An Chloe” when I hear the passing of the melody between the piano and voice in “Da quel sembiante appresi.” These songs were written as exercise pieces for a Viennese singer to learn to sing in bel canto style, and any student would be well advised to listen for the care with which Brownlee pronounces every consonant (including the doubled ones) clearly while sustaining the legato line.

The Verdi set opens out the emotional landscape with its longer, more sweeping phrases, and introduces a buffo element in “Lo spazzacamin”, contrasting the sound of the chimney sweep calling out his trade to the public with the light, almost conversational description of the usefulness of what he does and how he will make one’s life better.

Donizetti’s representation is limited to two pieces, “L’amor funesto”, which reaches toward opera, and “Me voglio fa ‘na casa”, a perky song in Neapolitan dialect. The Bellini songs range from three of the Sei ariette, which most voice students will encounter sooner or later, to the delectable “La ricordanza”, in which the melody (familiar from “Qui la voce” in I puritani) is passed from piano introduction to vocal statement, and then back to the piano as the vocal line becomes declamation. In this piece Brownlee’s skill with Italian diction and phrasing, as well as his ability to shape a beautiful melodic phrase, can be very instructive to the student of bel canto who listens attentively.

The Rossini section begins right after this with “La danza”, demonstrating to the full Brownlee’s consistently forward diction in the nonstop barrage of Italian consonants and vowels, winding up with a series of ringing held notes that continue into upward phrases (on one breath, of course). The only reason to perform this piece is to impress (and possibly amuse) the audience, and, as far as I’m concerned, both Katz and Brownlee succeed admirably. This sets up the more lyrical “La lontananza” and “L’esule” , finishing with two of Rossini’s many settings of Metastasio’s “Mi lagnerò tacendo”, one in the style of an aria antica and the other an opportunity to display some long, smooth phrases in high tessitura, at which Brownlee excels.

The CD booklet contains notes by Richard Wigmore in English, French, and German, as well as comments by and a bio of the singer. Texts and English translations of the songs are available on the EMI Classics website.

Barbara Miller

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