Matthew Polenzani; photo by Sim Cannety-Clarke

Indiana University is known for two things, at least—basketball and music. IU has one of the best music schools in the country, and therefore in the world. Two weekends ago, I attended a concert on that campus. Matthew Polenzani, the American tenor, sang Die schöne Müllerin with Kevin Murphy. 

Kevin is a pianist and conductor, who teaches at IU. So does his wife, Heidi Grant Murphy, the soprano. I call him “Kevin” because he is a friend of mine. I’ve mentioned this friendship on this blog before.

The night after Die schöne Müllerin, Polenzani gave a master class at the school.

He is known for having one of the most beautiful voices in all creation. He is especially prized in Mozart and bel canto, I would say. Just as an aside, he’s probably the best singer of “Danny Boy” since McCormack—see (or hear) for yourself.

Although my favorite singer of “Danny Boy,” I must say, is Schwarzkopf. She sang it as an encore for her English-speaking audiences. In that German accent, and with that special artistry, she is absolutely heartbreaking.

Of course, there is Polenzani’s unbeatable beauty of sound ... 

In addition to being one of the finest singers around, Polenzani is a helluva nice guy. This is apparent to everyone, even to those with no personal acquaintance of him. (I have interviewed him and seen him on other occasions.) He strikes me as particularly American: open, warm, unpretentious.

I had never really thought of him for lieder, frankly—for German art songs. I wasn’t sure how Die schöne Müllerin, Schubert’s song-cycle, would go. I knew the singing would be beautiful. But would it be profound, idiomatic, transporting, shattering?

Yes, it was. It was all those things. In fact, it was one of the peak lieder experiences of my life. You know how people use the word “great” in everyday speech? As in “This tuna sandwich is great,” or “That was a great editorial in the paper on Tuesday”? This Schöne Müllerin was great in the sense of: in accord with the highest artistic standards and ideals.

And the piano-playing matched the singing. I can’t say this, as Kevin Murphy’s friend, but it’s still true.

One of the effects this performance had on me was to make me think better of the work. Not that I didn’t revere Die schöne Müllerin before. Not that I wasn’t in awe of it before. But it’s even better than I knew. I guess I always thought it was slightly inferior to another Schubert song-cycle, Winterreise. I don’t think so anymore. I imagine Die schöne Müllerin is an unsurpassed marriage of music and words.

And please note that “unsurpassed” does not mean “unequaled.” I sometimes say “unsurpassed,” only to have people charge that I declared something the best.

I do hope that a recording was made of this Indiana Schöne Müllerin. I’ll have to look into that. I have never heard a better performance of the work (of many performances). There were people in the audience—veteran musicians and music hands—who are far from sentimental, and had tears in their eyes. This performance was almost indescribably moving.

After it was over, I reflected on the relation between beauty and “movingness”—emotional impact. Polenzani’s voice is beautiful in the extreme, as we know. Did that affect the “movingness” of the performance? I think it did.

It is possible to make too much of beauty of sound. It’s possible to make too little of it too. Beauty of sound is not unimportant. People said of Kiri Te Kanawa, “Oh, it’s just a beautiful voice.” First, it wasn’t true—Kiri had more than that. Second, even if it had been true, so what? A greatly beautiful voice is a start—more than a start. And most people, of course, can’t even get started.

People always say that Callas had an ugly voice—or at least not a beautiful voice—but made up for it in other ways. Frankly, I’ve always liked the sound of Callas’s voice, a lot.

Beauty is an important component of a singer’s toolkit. For Matthew Polenzani, it’s a killer arrow.

Last week, I had a post about audience noises: talking, coughing, teeth-sucking, plastic bags, wayward hearing aids, shushing, etc. Well, in Indiana, just before “Des Baches Wiegenlied,” a lady whispered to her husband, “This is the last song.” The whisper resounded through the hall.

Honestly—and if the performers disagree with me, I don’t blame them—I found that sort of touching. As my dad once said, “The thing about being in public is, the public is there.” Public is different from private. If you want no evidence of the public, you’ll have to sit alone in your room, listening to recordings.

Which some people do. And which I do, sometimes. I understand the point of view. But I sort of like—most of the time, or much of the time—the wild cards of the public.

Some readers may recall how I ended last week’s post:

I have a friend, a regular concertgoer, whose ideal is this: He would like to attend live performances—because they are so much better than, or at least different from, recordings—without an audience. He loves live, but he doesn’t love audiences, and their noises and nuisances. He envisions himself alone in the hall, listening to the live performances.

That is something a very rich man might be able to arrange! Some combination of Trump and Esterházy . . . 

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