John Relyea, Warren Jones excel at Mandel-when they stick to theatrics

By Jeremy Rosenberg

When thoughts of the classical German lied (art song) traverse one’s mind, they are eternally accompanied by the name of Franz Schubert. These two trek hand-in-hand so often that they nearly become one. Other composers included in musings on the lied are usually limited to Schumann and Brahms. Indeed, the songs of these three composers are sung with such frequency that they soon lose their novelty; even diehard lied enthusiasts rapidly grow weary of them. That is why a lieder recital that does not include the work of these three is always welcome.

Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms had nothing to do with the stage of Mandel Hall last Friday night. Bass-baritone John Relyea decided he would treat his audience to a sampling from the rest of the lied repertoire. On the program were songs by Richard Strauss, Jacques Ibert, Samuel Barber, and Tchaikovsky, and the excitement of hearing scarcely performed works was high.

The evening started, however, rather conventionally, with seven of Strauss’ songs. Strauss is likely the first composer thought of in reference to the Lied after the big three. Here was the chance to usher in the program with less famous—but still familiar and accessible—songs. Relyea did not choose, however, any of the late Strauss songs, whose beauty reaches the sublime. Instead, he picked earlier songs—still masterful, but not as equally filled with genius.

Relyea delivered a good, yet not wonderful, performance. His voice was strong even in the softest of passages—perfectly even and intense, it filled the hall with its presence. He sang with beauty, but lacked the necessary vitality to make these songs light up as they should. Relyea was not helped by balance problems with the piano accompaniment of Warren Jones. The piano was not in danger of overpowering Relyea’s strong voice, but instead went too far in the opposite direction and did not provide enough support.

The program notes described Relyea as being equally at home on the opera stage and in the concert hall. If this recital is any indication, that statement is wrong. That Relyea is not well suited to the recital hall was apparent from the first. He was most relaxed, most compelling and most successful when he was being theatrical. This was demonstrated during Nichts, the last of the Strauss songs he sang. Relyea matched this delightful song with an easy air and graceful stage movements, allowing himself and the audience to enjoy the song more than previous ones. Perhaps if Relyea had believed he had been singing opera all along, the rest of the Strauss set would have been of the same caliber.

Following Nichts, Ibert’s Four Songs of Don Quixote presented a fascinating mix of French and Spanish sounds in the tradition of Ravel’s Rhapsodie Espagnole. The Four Songs were composed for a film score, which Ravel was originally commissioned to write but was unable to complete. These songs bear little resemblance to Schubert’s and were a delight with their atmospheric and florid character. It was a pity that Relyea’s voice was ill-suited to them. Though its strength and presence made his tone apt for the Strauss, Relyea’s voice is neither silken nor especially nimble, as required by the Ibert. Where delicacy should have been held as the highest virtue, Relyea was instead overbearing. Indeed, he sounded as if he were still trying to sing Strauss. This was not entirely regrettable, though. The Ibert ended with a final morendo high note, and Relyea sang with such perfect loveliness that he almost redeemed all that came before.

The second half of the concert proved far better than the first. The three songs that Barber set to the poetry of James Joyce fulfilled all the anticipations of the night. Barber is far too underappreciated in his capacity as a composer of works other than his famous Adagio. These early songs display a mature feeling and subtle beauty desired in any composition. The intense and rich colorations were alternately tragic and driving. Relyea had relaxed enough by this time to have the flexibility and tenderness necessary to make these songs shine.

In the five Tchaikovsky songs, too, Relyea adopted a smooth and warm tone to accompany the glowing melodies. His talent for the dramatic was especially apparent here. Relyea’s performance found a renewed intensity and strengthened passion with the last of these songs, “Don Juan’s Serenade.” Here, Relyea again decided to be theatrical, and it added much to his performance. It appears Relyea is aware that his theatricality enhances his singing, for one could see his face light up immediately before starting this song. The audience knew it as well, and applauded ecstatically when Relyea finished.

In the end, however, Relyea’s encores were easily the most delightful performances of the night. Now fully relaxed, he decided to pull out all the stops with his dramatic performance. The whimsical Gershwin song, “Just Another Rhumba,” that he sang as the first encore was the most memorable part of the night. He danced along and gave the impression that he was enjoying this far more than any of the other songs on the program. As a result, his voice was at its most spirited and flowing. The audience responded beautifully, laughing along with the smiling Relyea, and it eventually brought him out for a second encore. Here, he sang an impassioned “Ol’ Man River.” His deep voice did not weigh down the performance but propelled it forward with a determination and compelling vigor. As with the rhumba, Relyea waxed theatrical here, moving about the stage with flair and depth of feeling. If only he had done this all evening.