Konrad Jarnot, Braving Flu And Wagner

By Tom Huizenga
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Singers less brave than Konrad Jarnot might have postponed their Washington recital debut at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Monday night, but the young British baritone courageously went on with the show. He was recovering from the flu, and it was clear from the opening strains of Wagner's "Wesendonck Lieder" that his voice was weakened.

The evening provided glimpses of Jarnot's silky, supple voice, but often it was hampered by a lack of energy -- resulting in notes slightly out of focus, watery vowels and even several wobbles.

It's unfortunate, because Jarnot and his perceptive pianist Alexander Schmalcz came prepared with a fascinating program. Instead of lieder staples by Schubert and Schumann, Jarnot assembled a moody, dark program (perfectly matched to the blustery night) of rarely sung music by Liszt, Wagner and Duparc, all of which seemed haunted by the spirit of "Tristan und Isolde."

Wagner wrote his "Wesendonck Lieder" while under the spell of a love interest named Mathilde Wesendonck. She provided five poems and Wagner responded with some of his most evocative, intimate music. Two voluptuous melodies would find their way into Wagner's opera "Tristan und Isolde." Jarnot tried his best to convey the humid, claustrophobic atmosphere of "Im Treibhaus," with some lovely phrasing in his handsome upper register.

Wagner and Liszt were contemporaries, and both were considered evangelists for the progressive movement in music; scholars to this day delight in arguing which of the two was more progressive. Fuel for the debate is found in two of the Liszt songs offered by Jarnot -- "Die Lorelei" and "Ich m¿chte hingehen." Both songs mimic the notes of the groundbreaking "Tristan Chord," the complex, much discussed sequence of untethered notes that begins "Tristan und Isolde." Yet Liszt's songs were composed and revised -- supposedly -- before he ever saw a note of Wagner's opera.

"Lorelei" is a dreamy tale of the Rhine siren calmly luring sailors to their watery graves. "Hingehen" is a profound meditation on death. When the text spoke of the "blue depths of heaven," Jarnot lightened his voice, raising it gently skyward, but in the next verse his mental energy lapsed and the spell was broken.

Duparc's "L'invitation au voyage" conjures up the misty canals of Amsterdam with a nervous undercurrent. Jarnot, at times, tapped into the song's hazy melancholy but couldn't maintain the feeling over Schmalcz's rippling piano lines. Duparc's "Serenade Florentine" lies higher in the voice and afforded Jarnot some of his best singing of the evening.

Credit goes both to Jarnot, who toughed out a brilliantly challenging program, and to the Vocal Arts Society, which continues its reputation for presenting important singers at the thresholds of great careers.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company