Bryn Terfel, Silver Tongued, at Cal Performances

“You’re a fabulous audience,” commented bass-baritone Bryn Terfel midway through the first half of his Thursday night recital at Cal Performances. Don’t they all say that? But walking forward to the edge of the stage, he added, “You can breathe, you know.” The audience laughed, and took a breath.

That Terfel, a man born to perform, could so clearly feel the rapt attention of his audience and then mirror it back in a humorous and affectionate way gives insight into his brilliance as a performer. He has the ability to forge an immediate rapport with the audience and to honor that with both amusing stories told in a conversationally direct manner and songs delivered with superlative vocal technique and beauty.

By the end of the recital, the burly Welsh singer had the audience humming support to his performance, in Welsh, of “All through the Night” and singing the refrain to “Sweet Molly Malone.” After the our first tentative rendition of “Crying cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh,” Terfel had shaken his head and said, “OK, stand up.” The audience leapt to its feet.

Terfel, for whom English is a second language, constructed the first half of the program with English songs, which he introduced with a story about his first singing teacher Arthur Reckless (who listed himself on programs as A. Reckless, baritone), relating that he had the young Terfel sing only songs in English during the first three years of his study. With good effect: Terfel’s diction is immaculate, there was not a word that didn’t roll off his tongue with absolute clarity.

Beginning with “Sea Fever”—John Ireland’s setting of John Masefield’s poems: “I must go down to the seas again”—and continuing with Peter Warlock’s “Captain Stratton’s Fancy,” the opening songs had a kind nautical swagger that well suited Terfel’s buoyant and robust personality. His passions, though, contain an earthy as well as a celestial element. He easily transitioned into love songs with Ralph Vaughan Williams setting of Stevenson’s “The Roadside Fire” and Roger Quilter’s “Go, Lovely Rose,” moving into a sotto voce barely above a whisper but perfectly enunciated and glowingly liquid in tone. His dynamic range is awesome.

His voice color is round, full and vibrant with resonance and overtones, and there is no separation between meaning and sound. His singing is as natural as breathing. In the second half of the program, Terfel turned to a more European selection, displaying his formidable diction with songs in Italian by Handel and Mozart, four German lieder by Schubert that spanned an emotional range from the playful and slightly racy (“Heidenröslein”) to the meditative and elegiac (“Litani auf das Fest Aller Seelen,” and a set of three melancholic love songs in French by Fauré.

He closed the program with a quick tour of Celtic folk songs, beginning with the Scottish “Loch Lomond,” which he prefaced by explaining that it was sung by a man sentenced to death as farewell to countryman. It is not, he cautioned, the jolly tune some sing it as: “Oh, ye’ll tak’ the high road and I’ll tak’ the low road/ But I’ll be in Scotland afore ye.” His serious and tender rendition was echoed in his version of “Danny Boy”—what should be the Irish national anthem, if it wasn’t standard for nations to choose more obviously militaristic fare.

For his first encore he sang “Deh vieni alla finestra” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and true to the character, slid down into the audience to sing seductively to lovely ladies seated along the orchestra aisles. Lovely indeed.

Jaime Robles
Originally published by the Piedmont Post