Terfel’s style and musicality offer something for everyone in varied concert

NZSO and Bryn Terfel: A Gala Evening

Wagner: Excerpts from Tannhäuser, Das Rheingold, Die Walküre
Boito: ‘Son lo Spirito: from Mefistofele
Songs by Kurt Weill, Rogers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Bock and Harnick, and Traditional, arranged by Chris Hazell
Lilburn: Aotearoa Overture

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra with Bryn Terfel (bass-baritone), conducted by Tecwyn Evans

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday, 3 May 2013, 6.30pm

One wonders if all the words that can be said about Bryn Terfel have already been said: his magnificent voice, his control of dynamics and vocal nuance, his infinite variety of vocal colour, his resonance, his communication with his audience.

He has been gifted with a splendid voice, which he uses with the utmost musical intelligence. 

The Michael Fowler Centre had but few empty seats on Friday evening.  Not only was there a great singer to hear, but the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra was in outstanding form.  We don’t often have the opportunity to hear the orchestra play Wagner, but on this showing the musicians are very good at it.

The horns were in marvellous fettle for the opening of the Tannhäuser overture, with lovely tone and phrasing; the cellos followed in like fashion.  The players proceeded with a wonderful build-up and range of dynamics.  There was choice woodwind to enjoy, and the woodwind choir playing the theme was beguiling, against the mysterious, rapid violins.  Then the theme was punched out in a masterly manner by cellos and brass.  It all added up to a fine and totally convincing performance.

The beautiful aria ‘O! du mein holder Abendstern’ is perhaps the most well-known solo in all of Wagner’s œuvre.  Wagner’s fondness for chromaticism is most apparent here.  Bryn Terfel’s was a gentle introduction, his low notes benign.  His breath and vocal control were wonderful to behold, as was his enunciation, and the contrast between his pianissimos and strong, ringing top notes.  The cellos echoed his tone superbly.  Wonderful too, were the delicious harp passages.

In a radio interview earlier in the week, Terfel said that he considered himself a lyrical Wagner singer, and that he wasn’t there to sing loudly, but to give colour and dynamics to the solo parts.

‘Abenlich strahlt der Sonne Auge’ from Das Rheingold enabled the depiction of quite a different character.  The horns again, along with trumpets, got us into the mood.  Trombones and tuba were added to the mix, making a formidable sound for Terfel to encounter.  His stylish declamation came across despite the huge amount of noise created; some of the sound bounced off unexpected places in the auditorium.

Horns to the fore in Die Walküre, of course.  ‘The  Ride of the Valkyries’ was described in the printed programme as ‘one of the most famous moments of music ever composed’.  Certainly, but it has been so often parodied that I found it hard to banish some of these treatments of it from my mind.

‘Wotan’s Farewell and Magic Fire Music’ gave both singer and orchestra their heads.  Its dramatic character was belied by Terfel’s ‘stand and deliver’ concert stance, with few gestures, and little facial expression, relying on his voice and outstanding, indeed flawless, diction to get over the message.  The performance was characterful and commanding, the singer producing huge sound, supported by an orchestra in top gear – including the playing of the ear-piercing anvil! 

Everything changed after the interval.  Bryn Terfel spoke to the audience between composers, his large speaking voice reaching throughout the auditorium without difficulty.  He spoke of the words of Boito’s aria and their meaning (better than did the printed translation, which substituted the word ‘through’ for ‘throw’).  As he said, bass-baritones get to sing the evil guys.

Here, facial expression and gesture helped to convey the evil of Mephistopheles, as did the brilliant, loud, whistling that interspersed the aria.  Another nice touch was the singing of the word ‘No’ in a high, childish voice the second-last time it occurred.  The whistling at the end was imitated by some of the audience; Bryn Terfel told us ‘See why the dogs went crazy when I rehearsed this on my father’s farm!’

Kurt Weill’s ‘Mack the Knife’ from Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) is more familiar to us in English, but Terfel sang in the original German.  It begins with just piano accompaniment, then gradually percussion and brass are added, then pizzicato strings.  Back to piano, and the same process happens again.  This was all totally pleasing on the ear; the singer’s soft notes were quite lovely.

Oklahoma’s overture and most famous song, ‘Oh what a beautiful mornin’’ followed.  A charming xylophone was a feature of the suave and smooth overture.  Terfel played around with the rhythm in the song – why not, in something like this?  The orchestra sang the second chorus – then we all joined in. 

Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot is not as enduring as some of the other shows.  Terfel portrayed a quite different character in the winsome ‘How to handle a woman’, that featured sprechstimme.

‘If I were a rich man’ is another winner, from Fiddler on the Roof.  Here, Terfel was acting through his voice – shading the tone, making the sounds for ducks, geese and turkeys, and using an appropriate accent for Tevye.  At the end, he bounced off the stage to the rhythm of the piece. 

The orchestra played what is probably my favourite Lilburn piece: Aotearoa Overture.  The singer would have needed the break, but the piece was somewhat out of character with the rest of the concert.  It was impressively rendered.

A series of traditional songs came next, arranged by Englishman Chris Hazell.  The first, ‘Passing By’ had rather strange harmonisations, but ‘My Little Welsh Home’ included appropriately, the harp, and lovely oboe passages.  In the last of these, ‘Molly Malone’, the audience was again invited to sing along in the chorus.

A standing ovation obtained several encores: ‘Shenandoah’ in a beautiful arrangement with lots of flute and delightful pianissimos; ‘Ar hyd y nos’ (‘All through the night’) sung in Welsh with notable cor anglais in the orchestra – and a verse sung directly to the people seated behind the stage, and finally, ‘Pokarekare ana’.  Not every Maori vowel was correct, but it was a beautiful arrangement (I assume these arrangements were also by Chris Hazell) and a fitting finale to a wonderful evening of superb music from a great artist.

Bryn Terfel is totally in command of a magnificent voice, and of all the characters he portrayed.  He comes over as a jovial and friendly human being.



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