Norway, in many ways, is a country on the musical periphery of Europe. We rarely get the big names that seem to crowd the concert programmes of more southerly European capitals, and so when a big name decides to show up on this side of the North Sea, it’s a big deal. Friday’s recital with Bryn Terfel at Bergen’s Grieg Hall seemed to indicate that what matters with these superstar recitals is not so much what is sung, but rather who is singing.

Sir Bryn Terfel and Caradog Williams © Magnus Skrede
Sir Bryn Terfel and Caradog Williams
© Magnus Skrede

This was not a recital of probing intellectual insight or superhuman feats of singing, but rather a very leisurely stroll down Bryn Terfel’s personal memory lane. What pretensions might have been inspired by the inclusion of a few Schumann and Schubert songs were quickly dismissed as Terfel grabbed the microphone for the first of his many introductions. Explaining that these songs were among the first he learned as a student, their inclusion more due to them having lovely tunes than any artistic concerns.

There were attempts at menace during Schumann’s Belsazar, but Terfel did not seem overly concerned with textual nuances. He undercut the ending of Schumann’s Mein Wagen rollet langsam by going off stage, leaving pianist Caradog Williams to play the lengthy piano postlude alone, accompanied by titters from an evidently amused audience. The Schubert songs were likewise treated as mostly pretty tunes. Without any printed texts or proper introduction by Terfel, there was little to hang on to as he sang three songs from Schubert’s final cycle Schwanengesang, interspersed with other, similarly pleasant-sounding songs. One honourable exception was a beautifully delicate – save a few cracks – Litanei auf der Fest Aller Seelen, but otherwise, there was much unrelenting sweetness.

The real charm offensive, however, began once Terfel had finished with the German third of the concert. Before intermission, a medley of Celtic songs – starting in Ireland, ending in Wales via Scotland – which, in addition to being perfectly delightful, included an almost full Grieg Hall belting out the refrain to Loch Lomond, telling the audience they were far better singers than the audience he’d come across in Oslo a few months before. Then followed a colourful array of Welsh folk songs, again preceded by a charming introduction. Apart from Owen Williams’ quite touching lament Sul y Blodau (Palm Sunday), the songs were overflowing with folksy charm. 

Caradog Williams and Sir Bryn Terfel © Magnus Skrede
Caradog Williams and Sir Bryn Terfel
© Magnus Skrede

Continuing on in the second half of this recital of immense sameness, Terfel sang Frederick Keel’s three Salt Water Ballads, another remnant of his student days. The songs are an exercise in that particularly English brand of nautical modality, and the overwrought patter of Mother Carey might have proved amusing had it not sounded so similar to most of the music that had preceded it. The programmed conclusion of this barrage of good-humoured charm were four songs made famous by the (half-Welsh) American baritone John Charles Thomas during the first half of the last century. Home on the Range was just sentimental enough, but the admirably innuendo-laden Golfer’s Lament and bordering-on-panto performance of The Green-Eyed Dragon were too much. Ending a recital with a few novelty numbers is a tried and tested formula, but when the remainder of the programme was so oppressively jovial, it had me longing for something desperately sad and German. The two singularly curious encores of Die Moritat von Mackie Messer (Mack the Knife in the original German) and If I Were a Rich Man from Fiddler on the Roof did little to detract from the exaggeratedly good spirits of the proceedings.

There’s no denying that Bryn Terfel is an immensely charismatic performer – his warm personality, mostly humorous anecdotes and occasional jabs at Oslo audiences had the audience in the Grieg Hall eating out of the palm of his hand. There was little faulting his singing, either, apart from a few cracks and questionable interpretive choices in the first songs by Schumann and Schubert. But interpretations were not the point of this recital. What mattered was that Bryn Terfel was singing in Bergen.