Ewa Podleś, a Polish singer whose voice defies description, recently returned triumphantly to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in La Gioconda, after an absence of over twenty years. She had not been away from Shriver Hall that long, only four years, when she came with her frequent recital partner Garrick Ohlsson for a recital that opened the venue's fall season. The program opened with one of her signatures, a set of Chopin songs, settings of poems by Stefan Witwicki from op. 74 (last under review from Rosa Lamoreaux in 2005). Many of these songs are fairly simple and strophic (Chopin wrote them for amateur use), but they proved most effective vehicles for Podleś, who had the advantage of native pronunciation of Polish. She created winning characterizations for each song, from the simple charm of The Wish to the driven force of The Warrior and especially the folksy appeal of Merrymaking, which was performed as a sort of boozy waltz. Here, where Podleś sounded so close to a male timbre, as elsewhere, this was a volcanic voice that seemed to erupt from somewhere under the earth's crust.
Ewa Podleś and Garrick Ohlsson Live (Chopin, Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Mussorgsky) (2003)
Ewa Podleś and Garrick Ohlsson, Chopin Songs (op. 74) (2000)
Chopin op. 74
Tchaikovsky -- op. 6, op. 47, op. 57
Scriabin -- Sonata No. 2, Poèmes op. 32, Etudes op. 42
Now in her 50s, Podleś is still singing with husky ferocity. She was well matched with Ohlsson, who played with the piano lid up and mostly at full bore, as in the booming postlude of the first song of their Tchaikovsky set, Does the Day Reign?. Podleś seemed no less authoritative in Russian, and the scope of her voice seemed to broaden with Was I Not a Little Blade of Grass, in which she brought to life a young woman married to an old man. The theme came back in Zemphira's Song, sung by a young wife who detests her husband and falls in love with a younger man, a sort of predecessor of Katarina Izmailova. The set also highlighted the singer's outrageous range, which stretches from fairly high for a contralto to shockingly low.
Ohlsson opened the second half with a set of Scriabin pieces, beginning with the second piano sonata. For all that much of Ohlsson's playing, here as noted elsewhere, was on the overly hammered side, much of this part of the program was more delicate. The sonata had some una corda sections with little wisps of chromatic melody tailing off, Chopinesque arpeggiation, twinkling harmonies in the background. In fact, the second movement, while technically just fine, could have done with a wilder edge. One of the Scriabin Poèmes (op. 32, no. 1), an enigmatic wandering through an aimless Debussyesque landscape of perfumed veils, was more effective than an etude (op. 42, no. 5) that was a bit four-square and oddly clattering.
Anne Midgette, The Elemental Power of Ewa Podles (Washington Post, October 21)
Tim Smith, Ewa Podles electrifies Shriver Hall (Clef Notes, October 20)
Nothing could have prepared the listener, however, for the abject terror elicited by Podleś as the specter of death in her final set, Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death. Here as throughout the recital, Ohlsson accompanied from memory, with his eyes almost always focused on his singer, allowing him to calibrate the folk-style accelerando in Trepak precisely to her pace, for example. As much as she may have overplayed some of Death's campier sides, strumming an air guitar during the Serenade, for example, the combination of the dark, earthen tone of her voice and the snarl of ruthless hate on her face were bone-chilling. Podleś was quite correct to decide that there could be no encore to follow such a thing.
The next concert at Shriver Hall will feature the soon-to-retire Guarneri String Quartet (November 2, 5:30 pm).
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