Serious vocal recitals are rare events in South Florida. In season after season of extravagant operas, superstar pianists and thundering symphony orchestras, there appears to be little demand for the intimate, literary song form that reached its height in the Romantic hothouse of 19th-century Germany and inspired many composers long after.
So Friends of Chamber Music of Miami deserves thanks for presenting a recital Sunday at the University of Miami’s Gusman Hall. And they deserve an ovation for bringing in an artist of the quality of Paul Appleby.
A young tenor who has taken on leading roles at the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera and other major companies, Appleby possesses a rich, limpid voice that never loses its beauty of tone no matter what he demands of it, in music ranging from the intimate songs of Schumann to the operatic drama of Tchaikovsky.
Joining him was the estimable pianist Ken Noda, a longtime vocal coach at the Metropolitan Opera and musical assistant to the Met’s music director James Levine.
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In the first half, Appleby sang songs from the golden age of lieder, with works by Schumann, Hugo Wolf and Franz Paul Lachner, a friend of Schubert’s — all largely focusing on love that is (surprise) disappointed.
The largest work was Schumann’s nine-song Liederkreis, Op. 24, an early work that predated his best-known works in the form. Appleby brought an opera singer’s sense of the dramatic to these brief songs, with a vast range of tone colors and the ability to inhabit fast-changing moods. Although he clearly has the vocal power to deal with the 3,800-seat barn that is the Metropolitan Opera, he could scale his voice down an intimate tone that was never thin, always retaining its rich texture.
He sang the opening song, Morgens steh’ ich auf und frage, with a breathless urgency to expressing the narrator’s hope of seeing his lover. He brought a percussive quality to the German consonants of Es treibt mich hin, expressing impatience with the slow passing of time as he waited for her, and softening his voice to an aching sweetness in high descending phrases. After restraining his voice to recital hall proportions, he opened up for the long lyric phrases of Schöne Wiege Meiner Leiden, another song of love’s pain, thrillingly spinning long lines of legato, with pungent dissonances from Noda’s skillful accompaniment.
Noda’s work was a big part of the recital’s success, playing in a manner that was just assertive enough to set the tone for these works without overpowering his soloist.
Moving on to another master of German lieder, Hugo Wolf, Appleby adopted a tone that seemed more knowing than the innocent, frustrated romantic of the Schumann songs. In this more sensual music, he crescendoed to stirring, powerful high notes in Heimweh. He brought an enthralling tone of mystery to In der Fremde, never losing his fullness and beauty of tone. And he brought a tone of almost drunken exuberance to Seemans Abschied.
Next month, Appleby will take the stage of the Metropolitan Opera to sing the role of Belmonte in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio). He gave the Gusman Hall audience a sample Sunday, singing O wie ängstlich with agility and buttery smoothness and a restrained comic style, complete with a breathless collapse at the end.
In three songs from Berlioz’s Les nuits d’eté (Summer Nights), the French language proved flattering to Appleby’s voice, with longer vowels and softer consonants unleashing his gift for singing seamless phrases, from the verdant joy of Villanelle to the mystery and sorrow of Au cimetière (At the Cemetery).
For sheer operatic emotion, the highlight of the recital was Lensky’s aria from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. In this aria, in which a young man contemplates an approaching duel in which he expects to die, Appleby brought shining high notes to the climactic descending melodic line, giving a poignant and raw expression of longing and regret.
He ended with three songs of the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, sultry melodies with a dramatic edge. Although he had earlier asked the audience to allow each group of songs to be heard without applause until the end, he brought the second song to such an overpowering climax, with rousing, climactic high notes, that a few people couldn’t help applauding, and Appleby said, with a smile, “Go ahead.”
As an encore, he gave a chaste, restrained performance of O Waly, Waly, an English folk song arranged by Benjamin Britten.
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