Wednesday February 15th, 2017 - Baritone Samuel Hasselhorn (above) presented by Young Concert Artists in recital at Merkin Hall. With Renate Rohlfing at the Steinway, the evening was a definitive success for both the tall singer and his lovely, expressive pianist. The imaginative program, which included both the familiar and the rare, was both beautifully sung and emotionally engaging.
In my 50+ years of recital-going, baritones have invariably giving me lasting memories: Wolfgang Holzmair, Dmitri Hvorstovsky, the two Thomases (Allen and Hampson), Bo Skovhus, Matthias Goerne, Sanford Sylvan, Kurt Ollmann, Christopheren Nomura, Randall Scarlata, Keith Phares, John Michael Moore, David Won, Shenyang, Thomas Cannon - their voices echo in the mind and heart. Mr. Hasselhorn now joins that distinguished list.
In their opening Schumann set, Mr. Hasselhorn and Ms. Rohlfing explored a wide range of moods: from the urgency of Tragödie I and the pensive resignation of Tragödie II, they progressed to the vivid narrative of Belsazar (Mr. Hasselhorn operatically powerful, with Ms. Rohlfing excelling), and the rather unusual Mein wagen rollet langsam. The effect of the defeat of Napoleon on two of his faithful foot-soldiers was marvelously depicted in song by Mr. Hasselhorn in Die beiden Grenadiere, with its sounding of the Marseillaise. Passionate desire fills Lehn' deine Wang, and the contrasts of poetic and turbulent love were superbly expressed by baritone and pianist in Du bist wie eine Blume and Es leuchtet meine liebe, the latter ending with Ms. Rohlfing's finely-played postlude.
In charmingly accented and very clear English, Mr. Hasselhorn delighted us with Britten's ironic Oliver Cromwell and The foggy, foggy dew. The singer's exceptional control was manifested in his poignant rendering of O waly, waly with Ms. Rohlfing giving tender support. A long comic Britten narrative, The Crocodile, ended the evening's first half.
Addressing the audience before commencing the evening's second half, Mr. Hasselhorn spoke of the woes of our planet today, thrown into further chaos by recent events. The plight of refugees worldwide, and the threats posed by war and terrorism to a hopeful humanity prompted the baritone to devise a set of works especially meaningful to him on a personal level; these he now offered to us with singing of real sincerity and depth of feeling.
The juxtaposition of Hugo Wolf's madly dramatic Die Feuerreiter ('The Fireman') and Franz Schubert's haunting Litanei auf das Allerseelen ('Litany for All-Saints') was a masterstroke of programming beyond anything I've ever experienced in a recital. The fierceness and wild desperation of the Wolf was memorably contrasted with the sublime prayer for peace penned by Schubert. Mr. Hasselhorn and Ms. Rohlfing were simply thrilling: the pianist in a virtuoso rendering of the Wolf whilst the singer's urgency in the narrative reached a feverish level. By contrast, the Schubert was heart-rending in its lyricism and spirituality. By taking only a brief pause between these two, our two artists cast a veritable spell over the house.
Above: pianist Renate Rohlfing
Three Poulenc songs, reflections on the Nazi occupation of Paris, showed the Hasselhorn/Rohlfing partnership at its most persuasive. The pre-dawn removal of (fictional) freedom-fighter André Platard in La disparu, a prayer to the Virgin in Priez pour pays (the pianist truly sublime here), and the return from the front of an exhausted sergeant in Le retour de sergent made a triptych - painted in the inimitable Poulenc style - which perfectly encapsulates a specific time and place.
The singer and pianist then sent chills thru me with the devastating emotional power of their performance of Schubert's Erlkönig. Mr. Hasselhorn summoned up the three contrasting characters of the narrative with subtle rather than overly-theatrical variants of tone-colour - simply splendid singing! - and Ms. Rohlfing gave the piano's role, with its contrast of relentlessness, desperation, and cruel seduction, full rein. A luminously intense performance.
In the brief Wanderers Nachtlied II, poetry seeped gently into the air from Ms. Rohlfing's keyboard, to be handsomely taken up by Mr. Hasselhorn like a benediction. Lingering on the heights of expressiveness, singer and pianist brought me to tears with the poignant song of Der blinde kind ('The Blind Boy'), a youth who refuses to wallow in self-pity over his affliction. Mr. Hasselhorn's gestures, stance, and expressive features portrayed the boy's physical and emotional state movingly, evoking understanding rather than pity: such a touching song, superbly rendered.
Schubert's last song, Die taubenpost ('The carrier-pigeon'), seems like a simple avowal of young love as the poet sends his trusty pigeon bearing messages to his beloved. The pigeon's name Sehnsucht - that magical word for 'longing' - and he is the messenger of fidelity. For those of us who love from afar, the song takes on a sweet depth of meaning. True to all that has gone before, Mr. Hasselhorn and Ms. Rohlfing were perfect here. Their encore, the blessed An die musik ('To Music'), served as a summarizing of this exceptional evening of song.
I shall hope to hear Mr. Hasselhorn here in New York City again soon; how I should love to hear his voice in Schumann's Dichterliebe! It also seems to me that there are many operatic roles in which he could shine at The Met. For this evening, I again express gratitude to Susan Wadsworth and Young Concert Artists for bringing us another in their series of exemplary recitals.