American Recital Tour

Steven Winn

San Francisco Classical Voice

... neither his brawny appearance nor focused stage presence could fully prepare the listener for the torrent of magnificent sound this exceptional American tenor produces."

“Polenzani gave a superb recital. His versatile tenor ranged from heroic to a barely audible floated pianissimo. Best yet, his heroic singing was kept on the scale of a recital and not blasted on an operatic stage level. His entire performance was elegant, intelligent and beautifully sung.”
– Gregory Sullivan Isaacs, Theater Jones

“Polenzani generally sings lyric roles, but he has enough power that he could fill the barn-like Keller Auditorium, but Lincoln Hall allowed him to relax, with a firm but fresh and unforced sound. In the most passionate passages, as in the cry of “Adelaide!”, he could reach into the farthest corners of the room with big, burnished tone, but most of the evening he spent caressing vocal lines with clarity and myriad colors. The Liszt songs were each little revelations, with Liszt himself trimming his famous excesses and Polenzani and Drake reining them in even further; their quietly controlled performances brought out the songs’ exquisite chromaticism and rich detail. The Satie pieces were comic and slightly absurd, but also warm and sweet.”
– James McQuillen, The Oregonian

“Broad shouldered and barrel-chested, his tawny hair swept back from a prominent high forehead, Matthew Polenzani is the visual antithesis of the reed-like lyric tenor. His movements, in a knockout recital presented by Cal Performances at Berkeley’s First Congregational Church on the last day of January, were at once emphatic and economical, each gesture and expression reduced to its potent essence. But neither his brawny appearance nor focused stage presence could fully prepare the listener for the torrent of magnificent sound this exceptional American tenor produces.

A set of five German songs by Franz Liszt served early notice on Friday. Arriving a bit late, after a protracted negotiation with the traffic-snarled Bay Bridge, I missed the opening Beethoven song (“Adelaide”) and remained at the back of the house for the first set of Liszt selections. Distance was no issue, whether Polenzani was exulting over the gleam of evening light and golden clouds (“The Happy One”), floating a white swan (“The Quiet Water Rose”) or most memorably evoking the Cologne Cathedral (“In the Rhine, in the Fair Stream”).

Sheer volume, impressive as it was even to a back-row listener, was only part of the story. Polenzani’s ability to shift from thunder to lustrous light and layer tonal shifts into a natural, almost vernacular reading of the texts came across with brightness, clarity and ease. That cathedral moment, in Liszt’s vivid setting of a Heine poem, was particularly telling. Somehow, even as a rich vocal blast conjured up the heft and height of the church’s towering stone facade, a sheen of color and sparkle suggested the delicate and intricate carving.

The First Congregational’s silver organ pipes made for an ideal backdrop. Polenzani is a mighty one-man instrument, from the sonorous, deep pedal points of his low notes to the glittering, high shine at the upper reaches. There were few if any discernible register shifts. Breath control was similarly without incident. In a delightfully eccentric program that featured Ravel, Barber, and Satie (of all people) in the second half, the singer pulled out all the stops.

A short break in the first half of the program, before a second set of Liszt songs (on French texts by Victor Hugo), allowed me to take my ticketed seat in the third row. From there I was able to appreciate Polenzani’s technique and quietly commanding aura up close. “If There’s a Lovely Grassy Spot” got a plump, nasal sound, both gently muted and precisely articulated. The charming “Child, If I Were a King” brought out the tenor’s instinct for storytelling, dramatic impersonation, and teasing hesitation. In “How, Asked the Men,” he became a kind of vocal feminist, speaking back to a horde of dense males. In “Oh, When I Sleep,” Petrarch and his beloved Laura took on an uncanny presence, where even the lightest caress had a kind of urgent muscularity.

Polenzani, who is every bit as ingratiating a speaker as he is a singer, chatted a bit about the Satie oddities that opened the second portion of the evening. His splendid accompanist Julius Drake opened the first, “The Bronze Statue,” with a jaunty, boogie-woogie-inflected vamp. Polenzani found the quizzical, comic vein and lightly puzzled expression for “Daphénéo,” about a pun-induced misunderstanding. “The Hatmaker” served up a tiny slice of Lewis Carroll absurdity.

Polenzani’s programming displayed his flair for folk cadences and character, in Ravel’s “Five Popular Greek Melodies.” One song produced an almost palpably erotic spasm. Another earned a voice thinned out in weightless prayer. Polenzani swaggered confidently through “What Gallant Compares with Me,” one phrase rolling into the next and ending with a lusty vow of love.

Barber’s rustic “Hermit Songs” brought out a sometimes raw tone offset by subtle touches. There was an unnerving trip to purgatory, an irony-tinged “sweet little bell” that was anything but, and a taunting sneer in “Promiscuity.” Polenzani’s “acting” was perfectly judged for a recital, reined in and carefully cultivated, but it was clear what a compelling actor he is on the operatic stage.

Two tantalizing encores finished off the night. In Reynaldo Hahn’s lusciously atmospheric “La Barcheta,” Polenzani unwrapped the liquid, long line and creamy tone that make him a natural for the Italian repertoire. Then, in honor of Schubert’s birthday, an elegantly restrained account of that composer’s “An die Musik” sent the audience off brimming with that song’s expressions of gratitude for music itself. Not even a clogged Bay Bridge toll plaza could break that kind of spell.”
– Steven Winn, San Francisco Classical Voice

“Mr. Polenzani opened with one of Beethoven’s most famous songs, “Adelaide,” and he had me at the first phrase, Einsam wandelt dein Freund im Frühlingsgarten, as his clarion, vital, sumptuous tenor gently caressed the gorgeous music. His voice easily filled the hall, echoing through the rafters, but seemed completely effortless, as if he were singing in my living room, his voice needing to fly, needing to be heard.

This was also the first time I’ve heard the British accompanist and chamber musician Drake perform live (though he plays on probably half of my classical CD collection). He seemed to be playing a magic trick with the Steinway Grand — turning it into a fortepiano, the kind of instrument Beethoven himself played. I don’t know quite how he did it; it wasn’t just a matter of playing softly or less sustained but somehow the entire tone of a modern piano was brought down to an 18th Century scale.

After the Beethoven, Polenzani segued into eight songs by Liszt with Drake now offering virtuosic Listzian pyrotechnics. I foolishly thought that I had heard the full bloom of Polenzani’s sound with the Beethoven but I was wrong. His voice opened up even further. It was in this cycle I realized the depth of his emotional commitment as each song took on a completely different sense of character and emotional journey, from a man in the glow of youth appreciating the sound of the lark to a soul in despair, experiencing the death of all hope. Technically the transitions from his lowest notes to the highest were as smooth and as subtle as they were dazzling; when he gently held a pianissimo note and sweetly guided it down step-wards, I held my breath. The German language has never sounded as lovely.

I have read that Liszt’s songs, works that I’m not as familiar with as I intend to be in the future, are the bridge to the art songs of the great Austrian composer Hugo Wolf. I think it’s a tribute to an artist to make the listener need to explore more of the repertoire just experienced.

After the intermission, Polenzani and Drake again enchanted in spirited songs by Satie and Ravel but the true revelation of the evening, the highlight of the recital composed of highlight after highlight was Polenzani’s transcendent performance of Barber’s monumental Hermit Songs. I have loved this song cycle for years but it wasn’t until I heard him sing them, that I was finally convinced these songs, though originally premiered by Leontyne Price, truly belong to a tenor.

What convinced me was the unmatched pathos in Polenzani’s voice and the glorious colors he used. Recently I admit I’ve been partial to a darker tenor sound, the sound of a Jonas Kaufmann or Charles Castronovo. But hearing Polenzani, I remembered why I originally loved that pure, golden tenor sound. Plus, as strange as it seems, some Americans who can sing beautifully in German, French, Spanish and even Russian, cannot sing at all in their native language; for some reason, unknown to me, they insist on fake extended vowels and annoying guttural consonants. This is definitely not the case here. Polenzani sung beautifully in English, and I could feel the audience being drawn further into the recital experience by not having to read along with the translations. Despite finding unexpected glories in all of the Hermit Songs, Polenzani brought a particular ardor and insight to the final piece in the cycle, “The Desire For Hermitage — the brilliant climax to an unforgettable evening. Bravo, tenore!”
– Glen Roven,  Huffington Post

“Mr. Polenzani’s voice has retained nearly all its freshness and poise, and he deploys it with affecting modesty, sounding graceful even when heartsick, as in the opening “Adelaide,” Beethoven’s setting of a narrative of nature and love.

At the core of the program were Liszt songs: five German ones in a set assembled by the performers, and four in French to poems by Victor Hugo. Mr. Polenzani and Mr. Drake teased out the stark angst in “Die Stille Wasserrose” and gave the repetitions in the final songs, “Im Rhein, im Schönen Strom” and “Es Rauschen die Winde,” more than a hint of obsession, a quality that bodes well for Mr. Polenzani’s Met performances of Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffmann,” starting on Feb. 28.

He was charming in Satie’s brief “Trois Mélodies” and particularly luminous in the prayerful selections in Ravel’s “Cinq Mélodies Populaires Grecques.” The feeling of tender frankness he radiates suited him well to Barber’s thoughtful “Hermit Songs.”
– Zachary Woolfe, New York Times

“Adelaide, Op. 46, is a relatively early Beethoven work of great sophistication, an energetic burst of yearning in which the singer sees and hears his love object and nature as one. So, too, the performers. Drake and Polenzani drew on the same palette of colors and echoed each other’s phrasings, functioning as a single instrument. For all the performer’s individual strengths – Polenzani’s tenor of sheen and power, Drake’s expressivity – the message of greater value was in the one-ness.

Polenzani is a frequent visitor here, and is well-known through his Metropolitan Opera affiliation. His is a remarkable voice. In Liszt’s “Die Stille Wasserrose” – almost a barcarolle – he held a note higher and more quietly than seemed possible, and did the same elsewhere repeatedly. His rich sound often and easily changed character. These are rare qualities. The spirited gallop in Bridge’s “Love Went a-Riding,” an encore, was a thrill.”
– Peter Dobrin,