Sometimes the omnipresent December holiday rigmarole can feel like a depressing taste of the tortures of Hades. By coincidence, that was exactly what Eric Owens offered on the first half of his Vocal Arts D.C. recital Friday night at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. The American bass-baritone canceled this concert in September because of illness, but the bracing program of German and French songs, with not a single carol or jingle among them, turned out to be worth the wait.
A somber group of Hugo Wolf songs set the mood, with bleak harmony supporting the broad, resonant tone of Owens’s voice. When the instrument is opened up, it has a booming, tenebrous quality at the bottom and a commanding roar at the top, displayed in three lieder by Robert Schumann. In “Mein Herz ist schwer,” set to words adapted from a poem by Lord Byron, Owens cried out for comfort in song, but none was to be found in the grim “Der Schatzgraber,” with a driving ostinato obsessively dug out in the keyboard part by the sensitive pianist Craig Rutenberg. The mood got no lighter with the indignant, quasi-operatic scene of “Prometheus” and the howls of terror at imagined infernos in “Fahrt zum Hades” and “Gruppe aus dem Tartarus,” all by Franz Schubert.
The sunlight did not break forth until the second half, with veiled, dreamy melodies by Debussy and some lighthearted, folk-influenced songs by Ravel. The only complaint one might make about Owens is on the soft side of the dynamic spectrum, where instead of a silky, simpler tone, Owens can sound like he is compressing or muffling his large voice somewhere in his throat. Nowhere was this odd contradiction more easily heard than in the two encores, an oddly muted rendition of Purcell’s “Music for a While” followed by an open-throated “Shall We Gather by the River,” in the Aaron Copland arrangement.