Raising a Powerful, Expressive Voice
Bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff's
local debut demonstrates big talent
Joshua Kosman, SF Chronicle Music Critic
Tuesday, March 14, 2000
Thomas Quasthoff's remarkable debut recital in Berkeley's Hertz Hall
on Sunday afternoon was more than simply two hours of magnificent
music making. It was also a news flash, a public announcement that
the vocal landscape has permanently changed -- in a thrilling way.
With his powerful but exquisitely modulated tone, his fierce
intelligence and his personable stage manner, the German bass-baritone
is one of the most exciting artists to emerge in the musical world
At a time when each new baritone seems to be hailed as the next
revelation, Quasthoff is the genuine article, a performer of enormous
-- indeed unnerving -- technical and expressive resources. The
standard just got a little higher for everyone.
At 40, Quasthoff is not really a new face. His CDs -- especially a
stunning account of Schubert's "Winterreise" on RCA Victor -- have
been given plenty of notice, and enterprising Bay Area denizens heard
his first local appearance with the Santa Rosa Symphony a year ago
in Britten's "War Requiem."
But the Berkeley recital, presented by the ever-prescient folks at
Cal Performances, offered the first chance to savor Quasthoff's
artistry up close and at length. It was a triumph.
Accompanied with fervor and style by pianist Justus Zeyen, Quasthoff
regaled an appreciative audience with songs by Brahms, Liszt, Debussy
and Ravel. Some of those songs, especially the opening set of Brahms'
Op. 32, boomed forth a bit overwhelmingly for the intimate hall.
But all of them gained from Quasthoff's combination of vocal heft
and interpretive clarity.
Whether Quasthoff will be able to apply those gifts to the operatic
repertoire -- and if so, how -- remains an open and slightly freighted
As a result of his mother's use of thalidomide during pregnancy,
Quasthoff stands about 4 feet tall, with foreshortened arms, malformed
hands and bandy legs that give him a laborious, rolling gait. In
Hertz Hall, he sang from atop a makeshift platform, with a music
stand in front of him, even though he rarely seemed to consult the
But the effect of his physical presence dissolved within seconds,
driven off not only by his musical wizardry but also by his easy,
charming rapport with the audience. "Don't leave, you'll miss
something!" he cried to a few patrons who straggled out after the
first encore. The most rewarding parts of the recital were those
that came closest to an operatic vein, the bel canto stylings of
Liszt's "Three Petrarch Sonnets" and the dramatic byplay of Ravel's
"Don Quichotte a Dulcinee."
In the Liszt songs, which are concert arias in all but name, Quasthoff
combined forthright oratory with an ingratiating lyricism. The Ravel
set found him at his most eloquent, whether wooing his beloved with
extraordinary charm in the "Chanson romanesque" or exploding in
drunken high spirits in the "Chanson a boire."
Debussy's "Trois Ballades de Francois Villon" benefited from the
close partnership between Quasthoff and Zeyen, whose playing was a
mix of high profile and sensitivity. The third song, with its paean
to the chatty virtuosity of Parisian women, tapped Quasthoff's comic
gifts. For those who stayed, there were three resplendent encores,
including Liszt's "Es muss ein Wunderbares sein" and Brahms' "Auf
But the crowning glory was a majestic account of "Swing Low, Sweet
Chariot," which exploited Quasthoff's prodigious range and his ability
to invest any music with extraordinary spiritual depth. ..
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