The song recital is a glorious vocal tradition that audiences are not quite as excited about as they should be. “Should,” at least, in the eyes of those putting them on. Despite ongoing efforts to popularize them, and to the bewilderment of those of us who are addicted to them, they remain an acquired taste. This week, anyone in Washington who resists song recitals missed a couple of chances for conversion as tenors Mark Padmore and Lawrence Brownlee took on two distinct subgenres of the classical vocal recital tradition and showed everyone how it’s done.
On Monday night, we had the German art-song recital, a program of Beethoven and Schubert that you could as easily have heard in the 1950s as today. It was the season opening of the Library of Congress, and the library had a treat in Padmore, an acclaimed British tenor with an impressive career. Padmore is in the English tradition of lyric tenors who carry hints of a boy-choir approach into delicate, fine-grained voices rising to a whitish, straight sound on top — think Peter Pears, think Ian Bostridge. Padmore makes a prettier sound than Bostridge but approaches singing with some of the same delicate care for vocal expression, and some of the same tics — such as a tendency to shout when the music gets loud.
The program opened with a selection of Beethoven songs but focused on two song cycles, Beethoven’s “An die ferne Geliebte” and Schubert’s “Schwanengesang” — which is simply a collection of his last 14 songs. Having averred that the theme of Sehnsucht, or longing, tied the program together — certainly it’s a major theme in German romanticism in general — Padmore emphasized text more than vocal beauty. There were certainly beautiful moments, such as the aching, poignant close of Schubert’s “Am Meer.” But it was interesting to hear a relatively dry, albeit earnest reading of his “Ständchen,” one of the most sensuous songs in the repertory. Certainly nothing was accidental about Padmore’s highly thought-out performance, accompanied with romantic sensibility by Andrew West. The care grew a little fussy at times, but it was a performance that achieved its aims.
On Tuesday night, we had the opera-singer recital to kick off the new Kennedy Center series called Voices, which, though curated by Renée Fleming, won’t be focusing on opera singers at all, but rather an eclectic and deliberate mix of styles not unlike that of Fleming’s American Voices festival in 2013. The old-school opera-singer recital combines opera arias (with piano accompaniment) and art songs, preferably in French, German and Italian, and ends with an American set.
Brownlee, who will star in “The Daughter of the Regiment” at the Washington National Opera next month, is one of today’s leading bel canto tenors, and at the Family Theater, he jumped through every hoop the program offered him, with remarkable ornaments and easy high notes in the aria “Terra amica” from Rossini’s “Zelmira,” superb breath support throughout, and simple, almost conversational beauty in “Morgen,” in a set of songs by Richard Strauss (all supported efficiently by the accompanist Justina Lee).
It was a consummate performance and yet seemed to be missing a hair’s breadth of effect, a soupçon of the melting beauty Brownlee can summon. Some of the songs didn’t seem to be in a range that suited him, including one or two of the Strauss — “Cäcilie” took him closer to a heldentenor sound than he, as a light lyric tenor, normally comes — and, surprisingly, “Ma rendi pur contento” in the Bellini set, although in “La Ricordanza,” a study for “I Puritani,” he was outstanding in the final, familiar phrases.
I suspect the reason for any diminution of effect was largely explained when Brownlee mentioned, before his closing set of four spirituals, that he had delivered a command performance for Vice President Biden and the Italian prime minister at the State Department earlier in the day. This spotlights one of the challenges of the song recital: It’s a one-off event that rests entirely on the shoulders of two performers. Two solo outings in one day is a lot for anyone: In this case, it may have meant the difference between a very, very good recital and a great one — even when it was topped off with a very fine “Una furtiva lagrima,” from Donizetti’s “L’elisir d’amore,” as an encore.