Luca Pisaroni, bass-baritone, Wolfram Rieger, piano: Songs by Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schubert, Chan Centre, October 26, 2014.

In an era where we often take for granted that young singers can perform both opera and lieder at will, it is useful to think carefully about the case of talented, 39 year-old bass baritone Luca Pisaroni.  How does a promising Italian singer who in his youth knew all the great Italian operas off by heart come, by his own admission, to be fixated with German lieder?  Then again, how easy is it for an artist who has gained a strong reputation in relatively dramatic Mozart roles (plus some Handel and Verdi) to suddenly acquire all the subtle lyricism necessary for Romantic art song?  We have seen baritones such as Thomas Allen, Simon Keelyside, Gerald Finley, and Thomas Hampson switch genres so often and so successfully that we fail to appreciate just how major an accomplishment this is.  And, in reality there have been very few singers (let alone Italian ones) who have negotiated both sides of the fence very well. Possibly part of the explanation for Luca Pisaroni’s interest is simple: he is the son-in-law of Thomas Hampson. As a relatively new entrant into the German lieder stakes, this recital gave us some feeling for what Pisaroni does well at this point and where his inexperience shows.

I enjoyed the first half of this concert.  One might have wanted more vocal freedom, dramatic point and textual fidelity than Pisaroni gave us but I admired his relatively restrained posture, concentrating on vocal fundamentals but always maintaining confidence and emotional engagement.  The pivot, of course, is the beautifully rich and burnished voice itself.  It may not be the most flexible, and the higher reaches may not be as differentiated as a normal baritone, but, at its best, it is just lovely.  Pisaroni has worked for a long time with pianist Wolfram Rieger, and the latter’s contribution was far from negligible, often finding an animation and life on his side of the collaboration. 

The four Mozart songs often brought out a gentleness that was most appealing.  “An Chloe’ combined a rich and deep vocal fabric with smooth transitions, convincing in its continuity.  “Abendempfindung” also achieved a consuming refinement and emotional suspension through its lyrical line.  The Beethoven went well too, often bringing out an affecting warmth.  There was a nicely-intuitive sense of legato phrase and natural motion in “Lied as der Ferne” and “Ich liebe dich”, both working in long paragraphs. The famous “Adelaide” had less sense of line, but the articulation and phrasing struck me as quite subtle, with a number of vocal textures sometimes at play in close proximity.  Breaking the relative austerity, “Der Kuss” saw our one display of wit, Pisaroni projecting the song with a true twinkle in his eye.  

The four Mendelsson lieder then gave us a glimpse of this artist’s agility, reasonably compelling in “Lied aus der Ferne’ though, in “Alinachtlich in Traume seh ich dich”, I thought that the singer needed even more motion.   The classic “Auf Flugein des Gasange’ had strength and resilience, but it was in “Reiselied’ that we saw Pisaroni at full throttle, relishing the drama in the piece and moving out more strongly than in anything before.  The articulation and line were quite splendid. 

I thought that the Schubert songs in the second half had considerably less confidence and distinction.  Part of the problem was that the six Heine songs from Schwanengesang are pretty well unrelievedly gloomy, so sustaining them as something with fresh and differentiated insights is tricky.  When one is already downtrodden, it is difficult to get excited by new pain. “Der Atlas” started well enough but I certainly found the articulation more cautious than earlier. “Ihr Bild” does by itself suggest a certain pallour of course, but here it was also in the singing, wanting true intensity and vocal differentiation.  I also felt that the lighter “Das Fiscermadchen” did not quite have a Schubertian expanse and fluidity, some of its emotions left unexplored.  And the potentially-harrowing “Der Doppelganger” was hardly that, being too smooth and uniform in expression.  Articulating and sustaining the ‘blackness’ of these settings certainly showed off the rich textures in the lower reaches of Pisaroni’s voice.  However, in this case there was very little ‘building’ of this blackness through subtle tonal contrast and varying intensities, thus suspending the listener in the composer’s state.  Here I missed all the little changes in shadings and nuance that might do just this.

The six Goethe settings were better, indeed offering more variety for the singer.  I thought Pisaroni’s interpretations of the two famous final songs, “Erikonig” and “An Schwager Kronos”  were quite distinguished, the former having a stronger vocal differentiation and character, while the mighty Kronos permitted a more unbridled and dramatic outpouring that the singer obviously warmed to.  The other songs were fairly well negotiated though it sometimes seemed that Pisaroni had not yet completely internalized their full flow of feelings, leaving them emotionally slightly vague. 

Overall, some hits and misses, but still a fairly enticing recital. 

© Geoffrey Newman 2014