There’s more to music than just beauty. On Sunday afternoon, the golden-boy countertenor David Daniels gave a consummate recital at the Terrace Theater for Vocal Arts DC, which proved that he knows it.
Not that Daniels isn’t plenty adept at beauty. A veritable trailblazer in carving out a significant countertenor career and bringing the countertenor voice from specialty, early-music status into the standard repertory, he has a lovely light voice and good looks to match. He’s still got the looks — now nearly 50, he’s developing the vibe of a younger Jeff Bridges — but the countertenor voice has a shorter lifespan than some other voice types, and his instrument sounds a little frayed and dry these days. Florid singing is no longer a strength, and there’s an occasional quality of hysteria when he goes for a top note.
His recital, though, was a reminder that none of that is actually what matters. Singers who focus on beautiful sounds and perfect technique are a dime a dozen, as you can hear in one earnest and inexpressive recital after another. Rather than going through those motions, what Daniels offered was music: a mixture of artistry and communication. For this recital — a substitution for the scheduled singer, the bass Alexander Tsymbalyuk, who withdrew several months ago — Daniels selected a varied and rewarding program of music that showcased different aspects of his voice and talent, and brought every single song across to an audience that — to judge from its audible reactions, not only warm applause — was with him every step of the way.
For those who did want sonic opulence, the pianist Martin Katz was on hand to provide it, presenting each of Daniels’s offerings on a rich silken carpet of sound. From the moment Daniels and Katz took the stage, there was a sense of being in capable hands on a great ride — even though the first song, Beethoven’s “Adelaide,” was the weakest performance on the program, spotlighting the vocal deficits most sharply, though caressed by the piano.
But the next set, four songs by Reynaldo Hahn, fit both artists like a glove. Daniels’s voice has the perfect blend of sweetness and smokiness to bring across these understated gems, starting with “À Chloris” (impelled by seductive little curls of notes from the piano). And he conveyed an aching vulnerability in “Chanson au bord de la fontaine” (Song at the edge of a fountain), in which unaccompanied vocal lines — here given poignancy and focus by the slight rasp in his voice — are nudged along by slight telling piano chords, like a hand swirling through water, finishing with a numbness hardly daring to raise its head in anxious hope on the final word of each verse, “espoir” (hope).
The Beethoven and Hahn sets, as well as five Brahms songs presented with expert nuance and fine German, did demonstrate Daniels’s stylistic range and versatility. But there’s no denying that the early music remains a forte. The last song of his Purcell set, “Sweeter than roses,” had the heavy honeyed richness of afternoon flowers. And the lone Handel aria, “Dove sei” from “Rodelinda,” a slow and melodious excerpt, hit a sweet spot in his voice, showing that this operatic repertoire remains home turf.
The final set consisted of four marvelous American folk-song settings by Steven Mark Kohn, in which quietly expressive piano parts and Daniels’s sensitivity found ways to vary the simple light words (of, say, “On the other shore”) in telling ways. Then came two encores, both perfectly understandable even without printed texts (a tribute to Daniels’s excellent diction): Poulenc’s “La belle jeunesse” and Alec Wilder’s “Blackberry Winter.” The latter is a Daniels signature that he dedicated to the memory of Gerald Perman, Vocal Arts’s late founder, of whom, he said, it was a particular favorite; and he sang it with such expressive power as to blur all lines between art song and popular song, and bring it home to everyone who heard it.
Next on the VocalArts DC calendar is a recital by the tenor Javier Camarena on March 24.