It was my first time seeing Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel live and my expectations were high. They were met, possibly exceeded, but not perhaps in the way I expected.The singing was brilliant across a wide spectrum of moods and genres (I’ll come back to that) but what really stood out was the man’s rapport with the audience which was extraordinary. It’s really hard to describe but let me try with just one example. It’s that thorny issue of people applauding for ages in the middle of sets. The usual approach is to have some functionary come out and announce that “Herr Poffel-Woffel respectfully (huh) asks that the audience not applaud until the end of the set because he believes it spoils the atmosphere”. Bryn’s approach was to wait for the first time it happened, gently shh the audience and announce “I don’t mind at all if you applaud every song but we’ll all get a home a lot earlier if you wait until the end of the set”. There was a lot of that kind of thing and it seemed quite natural and not at all stagey.
And so to the music. He opened with four Welsh songs that I suspect are not well known outside of the Welsh speaking world. They were fairly straightforward settings of the sort of poems that still appear weekly in Welsh newspapers (or did when I last had access to one!). They were sung sweetly, simply and not over operatically but the skill and the beauty of the voice was apparent in, for example, a beautifully floated pianissimo on the final “cwsg” of Eifion Wyn’s Sul y Blodau. His diction is brilliant too and that isn’t easy in Welsh.
Frederick Keel’s settings of Masefield’s Three Saltwater Ballads came next. These are almost patter songs in a sort of salty dialect English. Here Bryn displayed great agility and for the first time we got a feel for the raw power he can summon up as at the conclusion of Mother Carey when the final “Davey Jones” fairly shook the hall. Four pieces from the well known Ibert Chansons de Don Quichotte came next. More now in the realm of the classic art song recital, we got a fine display of varying colour and dynamics matched once again to impeccable diction. The first half finished off with a return to Wales with Bryan Davies’ A Medley of Welsh Folksongs featuring works in both Welsh and English including Dafydd y Garreg Wen and Ar Ian y Môr, both of which can reduce me to tears, even when not sung quite as beautifully as here.
After the break the published program was all Schumann and Schubert. First the rather operatic Belsatzar, which demonstrated perfect lieder technique and great German diction. I think it’s quite a feat to display that kind of verbal clarity in four very different languages. Then came Zwei venezianische Lieder which produced some particularly fine work at the piano from Natalia Katyukova. And then the Schubert; including a very subtly coloured Das Fischermädchen and a ravishing Aus dem Wasser zu singen.
That concluded the published program but we were told that they had inadvertently (cough) omitted three numbers. These turned out to be three varied pieces made famous by Welsh celebrity bass-baritone John Charles Thomas. First, The Lord’s Prayer, very simply and beautifully sung but is one supposed to applaud it? It got applauded. Then Home on the Range with a rather anaemic singalong section. And finally, a tongue in cheek piece called The Green Eyed Dragon which provided opportunity for a lot of growling and eyerolling and Natalia was probablu lucky not to get head butted.
Then the wild applause and the encores. First, If I were a Rich Man. The guy can do musical theatre and I’d certainly go see him sing Sweeney Todd any day. Next, an achingly beautiful rendering of Schubert’s Litanei auf das fest Aller Seelen and finally an Italian aria of Satanic nature. I suspect it was from Boito’s Mefistofele but I don’t know the piece well enough to be sure. (ETA: Yes, it was Son lo spirito che nega sempre and the dude can whistle.) In any event it was a good piece to show off “evil Bryn”. All in all a great show.
He did make a point of saying how much he liked our concert hall. I wonder what it would take to get him to essay our opera house. Corgi butties in the Friends’ Lounge maybe?
Photo credit: Lisa Sakulensky Photography – The Royal Conservatory/Koerner Hall