Remarkable recital features tenor, pianist on passionate journey

By Peter Jacobi


Less than two weeks ago, I saw Matthew Polenzani on stage in a Lyric Opera of Chicago performance of Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito,” portraying the title role of a noble Roman emperor.  His tenor voice easily suffused the vast space of the company’s Civic Opera House, both when it belted and melted.

Sunday afternoon, Matthew Polenzani took to the stage of the far more intimate Auer Hall to perform Schubert’s harrowing song cycle, “Die schone Mullerin.”  He was here courtesy of the Five Friends Master Class Series to give both a recital and a class in memory of tenor Garth Eppley, one of the five Jacobs School students who died in a tragic airplane crash on an April night in 2006.

The recital was remarkable, an artist inhaling the spirit of the cycle’s poetry and exhaling more than an hour of gorgeous music inspired by it, without pause, without score, but, fortunately, with the right collaborator, Professor of Practice Kevin Murphy, at the piano.

The story told in “Die schone Mullerin” (“The Beautiful Mill Girl”) originated in 25 poems written by Wilhelm Muller, a German romantic poet.  Schubert took 20 of the poems and set them to music meant to reflect the tale of a young wanderer who meets the miller’s daughter, falls in love with her, thinks she loves him, finds out — when a dashing hunter arrives — that she doesn’t, and commits suicide in the brook to which, all along, he has revealed his deepest secrets.

Schubert unleashed his gift for unabashed lyricism on this tale. For a baritone or tenor and for a pianist, the cycle affords an opportunity to shower an audience with sweeps and gushes of passion that crest as the disappointed suitor addresses the faded flowers that now must lie on his grave, and the miller relates that, “When a true heart dies of love, then lilies wither in every border,” and the brook welcomes the wanderer: “Rest you well, rest you well, close your eyes!  Wanderer, tired one, you are at home.”

Polenzani seemed to inhabit not only the words but the realm of that troubled soul. As he told the story in song, the performer took on the ardor and then the pain of the protagonist. What one heard and watched was immersion. The singing storyteller gave way to the victim of unrequited love. And since Polenzani was not on an operatic stage but standing next to a piano, the crossover was all in the voice, which gained a rainbow of colors reflecting shifts in emotion, from bright golden sunshine to fresh green in the glorious outdoors and, finally, to increasingly somber hues as the hero’s disillusion and despair sink in.

Pianist Kelly traveled sympathetically and empathetically all the way with Polenzani. Theirs was a unified voyage.  At the cycle’s conclusion, the audience rose and cheered them through four successive bows.


© Herald Times 2014

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