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Reviews

Piotr Beczała [Photo by Johannes Ifkovits]
28 Oct 2018

Piotr Beczała – Polish and Italian art song, Wigmore Hall London

Can Piotr Beczała sing the pants off Jonas Kaufmann ? Beczała is a major celebrity who could fill a big house, like Kaufmann does, and at Kaufmann prices. Instead, Beczała and Helmut Deutsch reached out to that truly dedicated core audience that has made the reputation of the Wigmore Hall : an audience which takes music seriously enough to stretch themselves with an eclectic evening of Polish and Italian song.

Piotr Beczała, Helmut Deutsch, Polish and Italian art songs, Wigmore Hall, London, 22nd October 2018

A review by Anne Ozorio

Above: Piotr Beczała [Photo by Johannes Ifkovits]

 

The two parts of the programme reflected two aspects of Beczała's artistic persona. As an opera singer, he has sung in Italian, German, French, Russian, Czech and Polish. The Italian songs he chose for this occasion showed the dramatic possibilities in art song - art song for opera singers, vehicles for technique and expressiveness. The programme began with three songs from 36 Arie di stile antico by Stefano Donaudy (1879-1925), a Sicilian contemporary of Puccini's, which were taken up soon after publication by singers like Caruso and Tito Schipa. Beczała's crisp diction made Freschi luoghi, prati aulenti sparkle, contrasting well with the darker O del mio amato ben. Followed by four songs from 8 rispetti by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (1876-1948). Although Ottorino Respighi wrote operas, he also composed a substantial body of orchestral and chamber music. The songs on this programme thus represent an approach to art song which favours the more private, personal medium of voice and piano. The songs of Paolo Tosti (1846-1916)served as a bridge between Donaudy and Wolf-Ferrari and Respighi.

The second part of the programme focused on Beczała's Polish roots. Throughout his career, he has made a point of promoting Poland's rich musical heritage. He sang The Shepherd in Karol Szymanowski's Król Roger in the 2003 Warsaw production, and has also done many of the composer’s songs for male voice. For this Wigmore Hall recital Beczała chose Szymanowski's Sześć pieśni (Six Songs), his op 2, completed when he was still a student, aged 18. Significantly, all are also settings of living poets, contemporaries of the composer. Although Szymanowski was to make his name as a cosmopolitan sophisticate, these songs show that his Polish identity went deep. The texts here were by Kazimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer (1860-1940) . Przerwa-Tetmajer was both a nationalist and modernist, given that Secessionism and Symbolism were forces for renewal, all over Europe. Each of these poems is brief, but the imagery is so concentrated that meaning is left deliberately elusive. The first two songs, in a minor key, are autumnal, but the strong piano part suggests resolve. In both songs, rise the image of a woman who may no longer exist. With the third song, We mgłach (In the Mist) the vocal line curves mysteriously, like the mists and streams in the evening cool. What's happening ? "Bez dna, bez dna! bez granic!" sings Majzner, (No bottom, no bottom, without borders!). In dreams, the poet hears mysterious voices calling . In the last song, Pielgrzym, the line rises, swelling with hope. "Gdziekolwiek zwrócę krok, wszędzie mi jedno, na północ pójdę, czyli na południe", (Everywhere I turn, from the north I will go south) Immediately one thinks of the Persian Song of the Night in Szymanowski’s Symphony no 3 and in the Shepherd in the opera Król Roger whose singing changes the King's life.

Mieczław Karłowicz (1876-1909) and Szymanowski were influenced by the Young Poland movement, a literary and artistic aesthetic not dissimilar to the Secession in Munich and Vienna, but with specifically nationalist elements. Pointedly, Beczała and Deutsch paired the early Szymanowski songs with Karłowicz's settings of poems by the same Kazimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer . Indeed, both set the same text, Czasem, gdy długo na pół sennie marżę (Sometimes when long I drowsily dream) which describes a strange, disembodied voice, heard in a dream. "I do not know if this is love, or death, that sings" . The piano part in Karłowicz's version is particularly sophisticated, suggesting perhaps Liszt or Chopin, though the style is distinctively fin de siècle. In Na spokojnnym, ciemnym morzu (On the calm, dark sea) (op3 no 4 1896) the poet imagines sinking into oblivion. "Let me revel in Nothingness". In recitals, reading the text while listening is not a good idea. You might get the words, but you cut yourself off from nuance and musical truth. Much, much better to concentrate on singer and pianist and use your intuition. Because Beczała and Deutsch are so very good at what they do, intuitive listening was surprisingly accurate. The moody piano part suggested strange dissonance, and the edge in Beczała's voice suggested psychic anomie. The stillness in W wieczorną ciszę (In the calm of the evening) (op3 no 8) is ominous. Again, the poet disassociates from the world. perishing "in the dark emptiness". The Przerwa-Tetmajer texts are so surreal that they evoke very fine expression from Karłowicz. Ironically, the composer died young, killed while skiing in the mountains.

Also from Karłowicz's op 3 are the songs Przed nocą wieczną (Before eternal night) and Zaczarowana królewna (The Enchanted Princess) settings respectively of Zygmunt Krasinski and Adam Asnyk, receiving relatively more straightforward treatment from the composer, but as evocatively performed by Beczała and Deutsch. Beczała has appeared in several Polish operas, including Stanisław Monicuisko's Halka and Straszny dwór (The Haunted Manor) - please read about that here. After the intensity of the very beautiful Karłowicz songs, the Monicuisko songs were rather more down to earth. Monicuisko (1819-1872) reflected an earlier aesthetic than that of Karłowicz : more nationalistic, closer to Smetana than to the world at the turn of the 20th century. Thus robust songs about sweethearts and spinning wheels, complete with atmospheric piano figures, and Polna różyczka so vividly sung by Beczała that it was instantly recognizable as a setting of Goethe's Heidenröslein, without needing translation. Then Monicuisko's Krawkowiaczek (The Krakow Boy) who fools around but loves only Halka. For an encore, another wonderful Karłowicz song The Golden years of Childhood. "It's my favourite" said Beczała : almost as well crafted as the Przerwa-Tetmajer songs but warmer and cheerier.

Anne Ozorio

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