How rare it is to hear the deepest extremes of the human vocal instrument given centre-stage attention in recital. In opera, as devils and gods, kings, leaders and fathers, the bass voice embraces, smothers and thunders its hefty way into the drama, more often without stealing the limelight from the glamorous sopranos or tenors. It's these such roles that internationally acclaimed Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto has stamped his mark on in all the major opera houses - the title role of Boris Godunov aside, there's Jacopo Fiesco in Simon Boccanegra, Prince Gremin in Eugene Onegin and Philippe II in Don Carlos, which Furlanetto sang in his Australian debut in Sydney in 2015.
On Monday evening, in a recital presented by Opera Australia, local audiences had the fortune to attend Furlanetto's Melbourne debut at the Melbourne Recital Hall in an all Russian program of songs by Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) and Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881). On show was the superbly refined sound of an artist whose secure, resonant and smouldering bass clad the songs in thrilling dramatic purpose. At piano, Ukrainian born pianist Igor Tchetuev's insightful playing and judiciously balanced support provided additional striking textures. Together, a lush and thickly blanketed acoustic blend filled the venue's large Elizabeth Murdoch Hall.
Furlanetto and Tchetuev have appeared numerous times together and the polish they apply to performance is evidently ingrained. In 2010, the pair released a CD recording of Rachmaninov and Mussorgsky songs on Prestige Classics Vienna, simply titled, Songs. It's from this collection that the Melbourne recital is predominantly based (as was the same program performed at Sydney Recital Hall on 30th September).
The evening was characterised by songs of pronounced introspection, often plaintive and eerie, to verse that speaks to the landscape, to the unseen and to the heart and Furlanetto meandered through them eloquently. A complimentary program booklet included the English translation of the songs, though it would have been helpful to see in print the Russian being sung. Nonetheless, and notably, Furlanetto guided the listener through the text via expertly described interpretations.
The program's first part featured eight songs by Rachmaninov (some coming in at barely a minute's length), including "The Silent Night" and "O, No, I Beg You, Do Not Leave!" from the early Op. 4 designated song set and "A Dream" from the Op. 8 of 1893. From the Op. 21 set of 1902, Furlanetto began the evening in commanding form with the heavy air that the song "Fate" carries, the word 'Стук' (Stuk), or 'knock' hammered three times and interspersed through the text to reinforce the ominous end to come. Furlanetto established an immediate connection to the spirit of the song, extracting its dark colours as he stood in front of the piano and occasionally leaning a hand on it to take the weight of an anxious and affected character.
Also from Op. 21, Furlanetto imbued the songs "Lilacs" and "How Nice it is Here" with ample richness within their brevity, a big and beautifully harnessed middle and low range burning from the engine inside. If one could detect a slight hesitancy and push at the top of the voice early in the first part, any doubts about its health and powerful soaring height was easily swept aside before the first part's last song, "The fields are covered still with snow" of Op.14, was over, a song that yields radiance and warmth in tone and hope.
Nine songs by Mussorgsky formed the second part of the program, including the four-song cycle composed in the mid-1870s considered to be Mussorgsky's masterpiece in the genre, "Songs of Dance and Death", which were saved for last. Within them, Furlanetto delivered the sadness and horror of death, which arrives in various forms, for each of the dark-hued and individualistic songs - "Trepak", "Lullaby", "Serenade", and the tumultuous "The Field Marshall" - in enigmatic storytelling style and diverse chromatic beauty. The conviction, fluidity and fire in Furlanetto's interpretation was to become the evening's runaway highlight.
In the first five songs, mostly brief but which generate just as much poignancy in their little vignettes, Furlanetto maintained a believable love for the music he sang, beginning with a soulful "The Leaves were Whispering Sadly" (written when Mussorgsky was 19 years old) which featured the voice's tremendous steadiness and clean crescendos. The sense of tension relayed in "What are Words of Love to You?", the warm and chesty resonance that compliments "Song of the Old Man" and the determination to convey the sadness of loneliness in "The Winds Blow" with effortlessly cohesive phrasing - even in depths of gravitas, Furlanetto has the ability to edge the voice in attractive golden light.
Next May, Furlanetto returns to Melbourne to take the title role in Opera Australia's new production of Massenet's Don Quichotte. For those in the audience who saw the calibre of performance that Furlanetto brought to this collection of Russian art songs, an outstanding treat awaits.
Ferruccio Furlanetto and Igor Tchetuev in Recital
Melbourne Recital Hall
2nd, October 2017