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Tenor Philippe Castagner, Slowly Warming to His Task

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 22, 2005

In much the same way that Franz Schubert's song cycle "Die Schone Mullerin" blossoms over the course of its seventy-odd minutes, so did Philippe Castagner's tenor voice warm and bloom during his Sunday afternoon Terrace Theater recital, which was devoted entirely to this single work.

All of Schubert is "early" Schubert -- the composer was dead by the age of 31 -- but there is a world of difference between the music he was writing at 26 (when he created "Die Schone Mullerin") and the music he was writing five years later. A late song cycle such as "Winterreise" is suffused with a cosmic bleakness that is hard to reconcile with this straightforward, lyrical setting of straightforward, lyrical poems by the German poet Wilhelm Muller, who was an almost exact contemporary of Schubert's, although the two apparently never met.

Castagner's gifts were obvious from the beginning of the afternoon -- a high, somewhat fragile, expressive tenor voice; keen musical intelligence; and an ability to adapt to the very different challenges of each song. Yet there was a curious tightness to his tone throughout much of the first half-hour or so. It was never unpleasant, but neither was it so lustrous as one might have wished for; I was occasionally reminded of such idiosyncratic tenors as Peter Pears or Ian Bostridge, who win over a listener with cultivated and original musicianship rather than sheer vocal loveliness.

However, Castagner's delivery grew more and more confident, and his sound more and more attractive, as the afternoon progressed. By the time he had reached "Trockne Blumen," a rapturous paean to the end of winter and the coming of spring, he was singing out with a honeyed sweetness ideally suited to the subject.

The accompanist was Ken Noda, who proved both a full partner to Castagner and an equally inventive musician. The one serious misstep was the frantic tempo at which the two took the song "Ungeduld" ("Impatience"): Noda hammered out rapid-fire triplets as though he were trying to be Jerry Lee Lewis, and an unwonted hardness was the result.

The program was sponsored by Young Concert Artists, which will now present Castagner and Noda in recital in New York and Boston. It is heartening to see such devotion to developing musicians, at just that point in their careers when they need it most.

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