sun 31/05/2020

Lawrence Brownlee, Iain Burnside, St John's, Smith Square | reviews, news & interviews

Lawrence Brownlee, Iain Burnside, St John's, Smith Square

Lawrence Brownlee, Iain Burnside, St John's, Smith Square

High Cs and beauty from a bel canto tenor of rare promise

We might have expected that the rising young bel canto tenor Lawrence Brownlee would include “Ah! Mes amis… Pour mon âme” from Donizetti’s La fille du régiment (that’s the number with the nine top Cs) in his Rosenblatt recital at St John’s, Smith Square – but what we might not have anticipated, after so taxing a programme as this, was that he would sing it again. That’s 18 top Cs (and the rest), which isn’t just cheeky, it’s a message: start looking over your shoulder, Juan Diego Florez - Brownlee’s breathing down your neck.

The extraordinary thing about the young African-American’s voice is its beauty. In a specialist repertoire which generally favours agility and vocal height over girth (and Florez is the prime example), Brownlee’s burnished tone and ample production, to say nothing of his ravishing mezza voce, make him an extraordinary prospect. How many Rossini tenors can you name who could sing a sequence of Duparc songs with such accomplishment and controlled rapture?

To hear him caress the words “mon amour” in the first song, Chanson Triste, using the portamento like a breathless sigh, took something simple and made it seductive. In Extase he took the title at its word and used “cover” like a veil of modesty; and the repeated phrase “Toujours l’aimer” (“Always to love her”) in Soupir had a glimpse of eternity in the sound. The point is that Brownlee has the depth and amplitude of sound to make his high tenor that much more versatile and beguiling. How I would love to hear him sing Faust – Gounod or Berlioz.

Of course he did sing Rossini – “Languir per una bella” from L’italiana in Algeri – with grace and fabulous breath control, again sporting top notes with no narrowing or hardening of tone and all the little grace notes and gruppetti elegantly turned with florid runs sounding, as they should, like a rapid legato.

Liszt’s Tre sonetti di Petrarca – again so indicative of the reach of this singer – found a darker resonance in the extravagantly long phrases, "Pace non trovo" eventually opening to a wickedly difficult high D, I do believe, and the final song “l’ vidi in terra angelici costumi” (“I beheld on Earth angelic grace”) achieving an intensity and sweetness that did not diminish in pianissimo. How rare that is. Credit, too, to Iain Burnside for the concentrated poise of his ethereal postlude.

An intriguing and thoughtful programme, then, from an exceptionally gifted singer – and one which finally achieved a very personal referencing with the inclusion of Cantata by the mysterious figure of John Carter, a fervent civil-rights supporter who was thought to have died (date unknown) in the early 1980s. As the title implies, Carter binds his four Spirituals into a single Baroque-styled entity – but a Spiritual is a Spiritual however you present it and Brownlee used every resonance of his voice, above and below the stave, to remind us so.

As for Donizetti’s top C-fest, there was a devilish twinkle in Brownlee’s eye before he despatched it the first time around – but if he had any intention of letting go of the final top C when he came back for seconds he kept it well hidden. Rare voice; big future.

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