Mariusz Kwiecien showed his range in a recital at the Austrian Embassy.
Mariusz Kwiecien showed his range in a recital at the Austrian Embassy. (By Mikolaj Mikolajczyk)
Saturday, December 15, 2007

Mariusz Kwiecien

Making an exhilarating Washington recital debut with the Vocal Arts Society, Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien performed works by Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Mieczyslaw Karlowicz and Ravel on Thursday night at the Austrian Embassy.

Kwiecien has a magnificent dark sound, with rare power and just enough grainy ruggedness. More widely known as an opera singer than a recitalist, his dramatic sensibilities lend themselves well to songs of conflict and romance. Schumann's "Dichterliebe," a cycle detailing a poet's love and heartbreak, is replete with floral imagery and accompaniment that can get quite delicate. Many singers tend toward hushed reverence, saving full-force singing for the thick chords of "Ich Grolle Nicht" and the blaring trumpets at the beloved's wedding to another man. Not Kwiecien. At key moments, he scaled back his voice and sang with tenderness, and he was sensitive to shifts in emotion. But more often than not, he lent an extroverted richness to the text, as though he could not contain his feelings. The effect was interesting -- imagine catching Don Giovanni's sensitive side.

Three Tchaikovsky songs with lyrical melodies and heavier, more chromatic accompaniment were a better fit for Kwiecien, especially the bravura "Don Juan's Serenade." He made a case for Polish neo-romantic composer Karlowicz with a gorgeous, unexpected falsetto note illustrating childhood paradise in "I Remember Those Quiet, Bright, Golden Days." In Ravel's "Chansons de Don Quichotte," he showed technical skill and dynamism. Throughout, accompanist Howard Watkins's playing was intense and nuanced, particularly in postludes.

As encores, Richard Strauss's "Zuiegnung" and "Finch' han del vino," from "Don Giovanni," could not have been better chosen or better sung.

-- Ronni Reich

'Celtic Christmas'

Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without the music, and only Grinches and music critics complain about the nonstop diet of carols and Handel's "Messiah" that dominates the season. But it's always welcome when musicians stray off the beaten Yuletide path a bit and explore some of the vast (and little-heard) repertoire of holiday music from unusual places.

That's what the Linn Barnes & Allison Hampton Celtic Consort have been doing this week with their annual "Celtic Christmas" program at Dumbarton United Methodist Church in Georgetown. Accompanied by flutist Joseph Cunliffe and percussionist Steve Bloom, Barnes and Hampton presented a lyrical, easy-on-the-ears program on Thursday night, featuring traditional songs from Ireland, France, Spain and England, familiar carols such as "Silent Night," and a few original pieces by Barnes himself.

And despite the vast array of exotic, unusual instruments -- from lutes and uilleann pipes to tambours and bodhrans -- this was no stiff, academic "early music" reconstruction. The consort plays as naturally as if the music were written just yesterday, and the lilting melodies and delicate, flavorful timbres went down as smoothly as a mug of hot cider, perfect music for a cold December night.

Robert Aubry Davis added much to the evening with evocative readings from John Betjeman's "Christmas" and Dylan Thomas's beloved "A Child's Christmas in Wales." Accompanied by Barnes (who played lutes and guitars) and Hampton (on the Celtic harp), Davis brought the poetry beautifully alive with poignancy and genuine feeling.

The program -- enjoyable for both children and adults -- will be repeated today at 4 and 8 p.m., at the church (3133 Dumbarton St. NW, in Georgetown).

-- Stephen Brookes

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