Forget other singers you've heard. Forget the voice of Ewa Podles that's heard on recordings, including a spectacular disc of coloratura Rossini arias (on the Naxos label). Podles has a clear, strong voice that, heard in recital, astounds the listener with its effortless breadth and penetrating depth, its subtle palette of colors, its emotional urgency.
Friday, at the University of Maryland's Tawes Theatre, the Polish-born Podles (pronounced pode-LESH) sang the last of a week-long series of evening recitals presented by the Marian Anderson International Vocal Arts Competition and Festival.
Like the festival's namesake, Podles is billed as a contralto, the lowest female vocal range. Unlike the smoky-voiced Anderson, Podles projects with the sheen of burnished copper. In higher registers she's devastatingly effective, with a virtuosic agility and the brilliant luster associated with sopranos. But comparisons are unfair: Podles has a voice unlike any other.
Most of her repertoire Friday wasn't of the dazzling, goosebump-inducing variety, yet there were jolts to be had from the instant she opened her mouth, singing C.P.E. Bach's "Jesus in Gethsemane."
After first hearing her unimaginably low and haloed sound, I had trouble concentrating on the texts. In the flourishing final measures of Haydn's recitative and aria "Arianna a Nasso," her vocal mechanism was audible in three distinctive gears.
In Mussorgsky's "The Nursery" she played two parts: a convincingly playful little girl and a richly textured and mature nanny, one beside the other, both with equal aplomb. Using the full resources of a singing actress, she took a different characterization for each of eight "Gypsy Songs" (Op. 103) by Brahms, from weepy and vulnerable in "Lieber Gott, du weisst" to hammered-flat and focused in "Brauner Bursche" to a fuzzier "Roeslein dreie," punctuated by hearty cries and robust chest tones.
Ania Marchwinska, an excellent pianist, stuck by Podles all the way, intuiting her theatrical pauses and remaining supportive while never submerging her own personality. That's quite a feat, for Podles's sound is a force of nature.