Piotr Beczala; photo via Salzburger Festspiele / Marco Borrelli / Lelli
Piotr Beczala has for years been an opera star, and on Sunday night he had his turn upon the recital stage here at the Salzburg Festival. Beczala is a Polish tenor whose name is pronounced “Beck-SHAH-wah.” He owns a beautiful voice, and has a key ingredient for a singer, or a musician, or a person, for that matter: likability.
He gave his recital in the House for Mozart, with the pianist Kristin Okerlund. They offered an appetizing program, with two distinct halves. On the first half was Dichterliebe, Schumann’s song-cycle, which gave the singer a chance to prove his chops in German art song. This is almost necessary at the Salzburg Festival. On the second half was music closer to home, which is to say, Beczala’s native land. It was all Slavic: songs by Karlowicz (a Pole), Dvorak (a Czech), and Rachmaninoff (a Russian).
I once did a public interview of Beczala in this town. He said he had studied with Sena Jurinac, the famed “Yugoslavian” soprano, as we used to say. I asked, “What language did you communicate in?” He said, “We call it ‘Slavic mix’”—some Russian, some Polish, some Czech, some Serbo-Croatian . . .
Dichterliebe did not begin well. Okerlund, the pianist, warped the opening with an excess of rubato. And when the tenor came in, he was strained and tentative—not sounding like himself at all. He seemed to be in some vocal distress. Possibly, he was nervous. The first song was very, very shaky.
But Beczala soon came into his voice. He had nothing low, however, and Schumann requires some low notes in this cycle. The pianist, I believe, played much more bluntly than she intended. I’m not sure she could properly hear her accentuation, for example. I have no doubt she intended more refinement, more lyricism.
The performers never quite settled into Dichterliebe. The cycle never quite cast its spell. Beczala sang some excellent individual phrases, as he can’t help doing—he’s a world-class tenor. But Dichterliebe did not have its marvelous overall effect.
What it had, along with Beczala’s voice, was the singer’s likability. You root for him, in all circumstances. He is winning, no matter the weather.
Leaving for intermission, I thought, “If they could do it over, it would be much better. They need a mulligan.” I don’t often have this thought. But I believe that Beczala and Okerlund were capable of much more in this cycle. I’m sorry the performance was recorded for posterity (more on that in a moment).
Mieczyslaw Karlowicz was a Pole who lived a very brief life: 1876 to 1909. He was thirty-two when he died in a skiing accident. I have said he lived “a very brief life,” but, let’s face it, he lived a year longer than Schubert.
Beczala sang seven songs of Karlowicz, published between 1897 and 1899. In them, you heard the voice of sheer authenticity (Beczala’s). I will mention a detail, a technical detail: In the first song, Beczala did not have a true piano. He was hoarse and hooded. (Pavarotti would do this, on his worst days.) But at the end of the last song, he floated a beautiful little high A. He held it forever, never wavering from his pitch, even as the pianist shifted harmonies underneath him.
Speaking of the pianist, she played agreeably in these songs, as in subsequent ones.
The program told us that she and Beczala would next perform Dvorak’s Gypsy Songs, Op. 55. They would close with their Rachmaninoff group. Instead, they launched into the Rachmaninoff group—with no indication to the audience, written or spoken, so far as I’m aware.
Beczala should have eaten these songs alive. They are in his wheelhouse. And he sang them well enough. Yet some of the dreamy songs were not smooth enough, from either performer, to be truly dreamy. There were seams in the seamlessness. Also, Beczala did some straining on high and soft notes. And then there was this:
I’ve never much liked it when people say, “So-and-so sang the song like an opera aria. It was far too operatic.” The truth is, there is some opera-singing in song-singing, and some song-singing in opera-singing. And yet—a couple of the Rachmaninoff songs sounded too much like opera arias.
Beczala sang them with heart, however. And he sang Dvorak’s Gypsy Songs with heart—and voice, and style, and gladness.
The audience was very pleased, and he gave them four encores. The first two were classic Italian songs—as distinct from classical Italian songs. They were “Cor ’ngrato” and “Mattinata.” Beczala sang them, naturally, with voice and heart. They were not particularly Italianate—but this mattered little.
Then he sang two Strauss songs, ending with “Zueignung,” the most common encore in song recitals, at least in my experience: It is a song of thanks. Beczala sang it very warmly, expansively, and likably.
Let me append a few footnotes—beginning with a remark on “gender,” as we say these days. Not often is the singer a man and the accompanist a woman. Beczala made sure to let her go first, as they retreated from the stage into the wings (or wing). A gentleman.
I thought of Ivari Ilja, known for accompanying Dmitri Hvorostovsky (the Russian baritone). Once, he had a female page-turner. And always insisted she go first.
Okay, the second footnote, also about “gender,” as it happens. Here in Salzburg, only the female performers receive flowers from ushers at the end of performances. In America—at least in New York—male and female alike receive flowers. We have developed a unisexual, or metrosexual, culture. I once saw Bryn Terfel (the Welsh bass-baritone) receive his flowers onstage at Carnegie Hall. He was charmingly mocking about it.
And the final footnote: The Beczala recital was recorded for television, apparently. Anna Netrebko, the starry Russian soprano, was in the audience. She has been singing Leonora in Verdi’s Trovatore next door in the Great Festival Hall. During the Beczala recital, in the House for Mozart, a camera was now and then trained on her.