Matthew Polenzani brought his Met-sized voice to the relative intimacy of Alice Tully Hall this past week, belting out several dozen songs while accompanied by the lively pianist Julius Drake. As part of Lincoln Center’s Great Performers series, the two dived into songs both humorous and deathly serious. Beginning with Beethoven, they made their way from German to French by way of Liszt, then carried on with Satie and Ravel, and finally wound down the concert with a set of Samuel Barber songs and some lovely encores.

Matthew Polenzani © Dario Acosta
Matthew Polenzani
© Dario Acosta

The three groups of French songs were the most impressive to my ear. Erik Satie’s Trois mélodies of 1916 were a rare (if brief) delight. Although Satie’s piano works are frequently used as the soundtrack for “pensive” scenes in movies, and his philosophies about sound influenced John Cage and other 20th century composers, his music does not get performed live, at least in New York City, nearly as often as it should. So Mr Polenzani’s jovial interpretation of four minutes of Satie’s vocal music was refreshing to say the least. In “La statue de bronze”, about a bronze frog, leaping vocal and piano lines were matched by goofy visuals like Mr Drake’s head tossing back and forth and Mr Polenzani’s mouth left agape even after the final note had trailed out (mimicking the weary frog statue).

Paired with the Satie songs were five songs by his acquaintance Maurice Ravel, who championed Satie’s work and openly admired him despite the older composer’s standoffishness. His Cinq mélodies populaires grecques combined the playfulness of Satie with a little more drama (via harmonies and texts). Still, “Quel galant!” and “Tout gai!” in particular were sprightly, with jaunting piano lines from Mr Drake – some of his strongest of the evening. Mr Polenzani, who has appeared in numerous tenor roles at the Met Opera, filled the hall with the slopes and arcs of his voice, bright as one imagines Satie’s frog statue to be.

But the most convincing French songs were not written by a French composer; Franz Liszt’s songs on poems of Victor Hugo were the highlight of the concert. The Hungarian composer and virtuoso pianist is the subject of the two performers’ recording, one volume in Mr Drake’s larger curated series devoted to Liszt. The Hugo songs are poetic in their words and are musically brimming with delicate floral colors. Mr Polenzani and Mr Drake responded quickly and fluidly to each other’s tempo and volume changes, slowing and softening and swelling from one bar to the next. Finally, the questioning lines melted into the resolution of a piano cadence, and then stillness.

Five of Liszt’s German songs also featured on the program, and while they started happily enough, they quickly dissolved into ragged vocals and the desperation of “Es rauschen die Winde”, the last song from this set. The growing, palpable agitation of these songs’ mood was occasionally undercut by slightly muddled piano lines and volumes that felt almost too loud for the setting. However, the rippling interweaving melodies and range in dynamics – particularly the surreal, subdued notes that seemed to simply float out of Mr Polenzani’s mouth into the air – were so startling that the audience barely waited for the final piano clatter before erupting into applause. In the same vein, Beethoven’s “Adelaide” was an attention-grabbing start to the German section before Liszt carried us from there into the French. One of Beethoven’s most popular songs, it was also chronologically the earliest on the program. Mr Polenzani’s arms swelled up with his well-enunciated voice as a physical affirmation of the glorious and passionate love song.

American composer Samuel Barber’s Hermit Songs, op. 29, were the only weak link, not so much in musical quality (these were just as well-sung and well-played) but because they didn’t seem to fit into the trajectory of the concert. These, too, contained every emotion from the winking wit of “Promiscuity” to the mournful meditation on the crucifixion of Christ, but stretched a bit too long to hold one’s attention. Luckily, Mr Polenzani and Mr Drake cleansed our palates with two encores: a gorgeous La barcheta by Reynaldo Hahn and a rollicking Love went a-riding by Frank Bridge. During the former, Mr Drake’s piano melodies flowed from the bottom to the top of the keyboard like the waves ebbing and splashing across the Venice canals of the song. It was clear from these last two pieces that Mr Polenzani and Mr Drake have not only an affable chemistry but a true mastery of their material, whatever the occasion.