Lawrence Brownlee: Lieder & Song Recital

Indeed, Lawrence Brownlee’s beautiful
voice and astonishing ease of delivery in the vocally challenging role of
Ramiro made it clear why he was already scheduled to make his debut at La
Scala later that year. Bel canto lovers who
haven’t caught him yet there or at the Met, or at any of the many other
venues where he has sung since then, can now hear him courtesy of EMI
Classics “Debut” series.

The program consists of songs in Italian by the familiar figures: Bellini,
Donizetti, Verdi, and Rossini, along with four Italian songs written by Franz
Schubert several years after studying with Antonio Salieri. According to
Brownlee’s comments in the CD booklet, he and accompanying pianist
Martin Katz chose these songs to “work programmatically, be enjoyable
for the listener, and be meaningful for us to perform”. Cutting the
swath that they do through the heartland of Brownlee’s home repertoire,
they also serve as a fine showcase for the tenor’s outstanding quality:
the ringing, forward delivery of beautifully phrased Italian that just
doesn’t quit, whether he is soaring above the staff, spinning a long
legato line or lightly skipping through a coloratura passage.

Any of these tracks can serve as a textbook example of how well-produced
bel canto singing is at once exciting and relaxing for
the listener—the sound flows so easily, no matter where the musical
line goes with respect to the staff, or how many notes the phrase contains,
that we can simply allow ourselves to be carried along with it. What I find
missing here are the pianissimo passages that add a meltingly beautiful
contrast to the bright ring, creating the paradox of even deeper emotion in
the hush than in the exclamation. (I don’t remember noticing this lack
when I heard him before, and I can’t help wondering whether the
experience he has had singing in larger houses since then has pushed him
toward making a larger sound overall.) The result is that the recital as a
whole is not as interesting to listen to as it could be, although there is
certainly a lot to admire in its performance.

Richard Wigmore in the CD booklet describes the Vier
of Schubert as suggesting “Mozart filtered through
Rossini”, and indeed I am reminded of “An Chloe” when I
hear the passing of the melody between the piano and voice in “Da quel
sembiante appresi.” These songs were written as exercise pieces for a
Viennese singer to learn to sing in bel canto style, and
any student would be well advised to listen for the care with which Brownlee
pronounces every consonant (including the doubled ones) clearly while
sustaining the legato line.

The Verdi set opens out the emotional landscape with its longer, more
sweeping phrases, and introduces a buffo element in
“Lo spazzacamin”, contrasting the sound of the chimney sweep
calling out his trade to the public with the light, almost conversational
description of the usefulness of what he does and how he will make
one’s life better.

Donizetti’s representation is limited to two pieces,
“L’amor funesto”, which reaches toward opera, and “Me
voglio fa ‘na casa”, a perky song in Neapolitan dialect. The
Bellini songs range from three of the Sei ariette, which most voice students
will encounter sooner or later, to the delectable “La
ricordanza”, in which the melody (familiar from “Qui la
voce” in I puritani) is passed from piano
introduction to vocal statement, and then back to the piano as the vocal line
becomes declamation. In this piece Brownlee’s skill with Italian
diction and phrasing, as well as his ability to shape a beautiful melodic
phrase, can be very instructive to the student of bel
who listens attentively.

The Rossini section begins right after this with “La danza”,
demonstrating to the full Brownlee’s consistently forward diction in
the nonstop barrage of Italian consonants and vowels, winding up with a
series of ringing held notes that continue into upward phrases (on one
breath, of course). The only reason to perform this piece is to impress (and
possibly amuse) the audience, and, as far as I’m concerned, both Katz
and Brownlee succeed admirably. This sets up the more lyrical “La
lontananza” and “L’esule” , finishing with two of
Rossini’s many settings of Metastasio’s “Mi lagnerÚ
tacendo”, one in the style of an aria antica and
the other an opportunity to display some long, smooth phrases in high
tessitura, at which Brownlee excels.

The CD booklet contains notes by Richard Wigmore in English, French, and
German, as well as comments by and a bio of the singer. Texts and English
translations of the songs are available on the EMI
Classics website.

Barbara Miller

image_description=Lawrence Brownlee: Lieder & Song Recital
product_title=Lawrence Brownlee: Lieder & Song Recital
product_by=Lawrence Brownlee, tenor, Martin Katz, piano
product_id=EMI Classics 7243 586503 2 [CD]