Sixty years ago tomorrow, on March 2, 1958, Jussi Bjoerling gave a recital in Carnegie Hall. The great Swedish tenor was accompanied by a pianist forgotten today, Frederick Schauwecker. In the early ’90s, this recital was released on an RCA Victor CD (Gold Seal). Writing the liner notes was the well-known producer John Pfeiffer, who said,
The opera tenor who ventures onto the recital stage inevitably recalls Dr. Samuel Johnson’s observation about lady preachers: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”
Bjoerling was an exception, said Pfeiffer: he did it often and very well.
I thought of this when Piotr Beczala stepped onto the stage of Carnegie Hall last night. The Polish tenor was accompanied by Martin Katz, the veteran American. Their program was Italian on the first half, Polish on the second.
The evening began with Donaudy—three songs by Stefano Donaudy, who lived from 1879 to 1925. The third of the songs was “O del mio amato ben,” one of my favorites. One of Angela Gheorghiu’s, too. (The Romanian soprano recently recorded this song, and we talked about it on a podcast, here.) I think it was Arleen Auger, the late American soprano, who first made me aware of the greatness of this song: its stateliness, its internal emotion, its unostentatious beauty.
After Donaudy came Wolf-Ferrari—four songs by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (1876–1948). Elisabeth Schwarzkopf used to sing his songs, with pleasure and success. They have almost disappeared from recital programs.
Then we had Respighi, including his three most famous songs, probably: “Nevicata,” “Pioggia,” and “Nebbie.” I should not forget “Stornellatrice,” which Leontyne Price, among others, once sang.
Speaking of singers of that period: In January, Marilyn Horne, the great mezzo, conducted a master class at Carnegie Hall. One of the students sang “Nebbie.” Allow me to quote from my “New York Chronicle,” published in The New Criterion this very day:
Truly, she is a master teacher, finding ways to communicate, whether in words or in demonstration. If one way doesn’t work, she’ll try another, until the concept clicks in the student’s mind. Horne’s English is both eloquent and plain. To a pianist in Respighi’s song “Nebbie,” she says that the opening notes must be more distinctive—“like they’re painful.” That is exactly right.
Martin Katz, last night’s pianist, was the longtime accompanist of Marilyn Horne. She was his main client, his “Numero Uno,” as he said. And he played those opening notes last night pretty much perfectly.
He played everything else the same way: pretty much perfectly. He is prominent for a reason. He is an excellent pianist and an excellent accompanist, both. He is immaculate—neat as a pin. He almost never puts a foot wrong. He is utterly reliable, utterly tasteful. You can take him for granted—but you shouldn’t.
Perhaps Katz could have had a solo career. Maybe he should have. But also: he is a born accompanist.
The first half of last night’s recital concluded with Tosti—three songs of Paolo Tosti (1846–1916), including his hit “Ideale.”
And how was Piotr Beczala, the star of the show? He sang his Italian half well. He retains a beautiful voice, with some plangency in it. He struggled when the music challenged his passaggio—a problematic part of one’s vocal range—but then, many do. His soft high singing was impressive. His pitch sometimes went awry, but never disastrously.
About interpretation, you could argue here and there, as you always can. For me, “Nevicata” was a little fast. I would have liked it a bit slower, even if this meant more breaths.
Was Beczala’s singing perfectly Italianate? No, especially in the Tosti, I would say. But that he sympathizes with the style is undeniable.
In the second half of his recital, he turned to his native language, which singers love to do. Even singers whose native language is English? I’m not sure about that: English is a notoriously ungrateful language to sing in. At any rate, Beczala seemed to take to the Polish songs like a duck to water.
There were three sets, beginning with Szymanowski. Then we had Mieczyslaw Karlowicz (1876–1909) and Stanislaw Moniuszko (1819–72). No Chopin? No. In my view, Chopin is one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived—in his piano music. One song after another, in nocturnes, preludes, sonatas, etc. Chopin wrote nearly twenty songs: real songs, song songs. To me, they are not especially pleasing, strangely enough.
I once asked Beczala about this, in an interview. He said, in essence, “You have to be Polish”—you have to be a native to grasp and love these songs. I hope I will appreciate them more one day.
Let me note that Moniuszko wrote a spinning song, “The Loom” (which Beczala sang, and Katz played). The spinning song was a staple of songwriting: think of Schubert, think of Wagner! But the spinning song went out with spinning—although “spinning” these days refers to a form of exercise. Maybe composers will be thus inspired?
A singer friend of mine attended the recital last night, and he said that the Metropolitan Opera ought to be inspired to put on a Polish opera—the Polish opera, namely King Roger, by Szymanowski. The Met should take advantage, said my friend, both of Piotr Beczala and of Mariusz Kwiecien, the baritone. (We can work out the soprano later.)
Beczala sang four encores, the third of which was a chestnut from Dvorak: “Songs My Mother Taught Me.” The tenor approached many notes from below, which bothered me, but it was a lovely effort. He ended with the most common encore of all: Strauss’s “Zueignung.” From Beczala’s throat, it was splendid.
There were bouquets from the audience—two for Beczala and one for Katz. Yes, Katz. When this bouquet was proffered, the pianist pointed to himself as if to say, “Who, me?” The answer was yes. I don’t believe I had ever seen a bouquet offered up to an accompanist. The gesture was certainly right.
So, you recall that I mentioned a 1958 recital in Carnegie Hall by Jussi Bjoerling? I am looking at my CD booklet. The encores included “Ideale” and, to end—what else?—“Zueignung.”