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Rising baritone Phillipe Sly performs in Banff: Calgary Herald review

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Philippe Sly is on a meteoric rise.  Already with two critically acclaimed albums to his credit, the young French-Canadian baritone seems to command the stage wherever he goes and has made favourable impressions everywhere he sings.  He was the first prize winner of the 2012 Concours Musical International de Montréal, where he took home a considerable amount of money, and all this after he had won the grand prize at the 2011 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.  It was with great anticipation that we attended Wednesday's recital at the Banff Centre's Rolston Hall to catch an evening of lieder from this rising star.

Opening the first half of the program with French art song, he sang the well-known "Chanson Triste" by Henri Duparc with clear harmonic intent and focused sound, making immediate use of his powerful instrument - a voice smooth as glass, imbued at times with a silky quality.  Next came Duparc's "Phidylé," a challenging work of Arcadian echoes requiring the singer to change moods quickly, particularly in the second section.  Sly showed he can move from mood to mood easily, with narrative fluidity and considerable maturity, ably duetted by collaborative pianist Andrea Grant, one of the premier instructors in this art form currently at the Banff Centre.  The song demands great harmonic adjustments from both voice and piano, and Sly frequently issued the appropriate tonal colour lending him the expressive range he required to sing this difficult chanson.  He is such a natural with this repertore and proved it repeatedly with a full command of his dramatic baritone voice.

Guy Ropartz's song cycle of love and grief through loss, "Quatre poémes d'après l'intermezzo de Heine," is less well known but evocative of the many themes tied in to love and bitterness that Robert Schumann used in his song cycle "Dichterliebe," based on selected texts by the same poet.  Bookended by piano Prelude and Postlude, this cycle, unified by a recurring motive, represents a voyage inward describing love and the deeply psychological consequences from suffering its loss.  The drifting quality of these chansons and particularly the piano solo sections (both of which I appreciated) were frequently buttressed with very clearly contrastingly-directed text-painted harmonies, all of which were well sung and with considerable intent, particularly Sly's use of the high range.  Sly's unwaveringly musical interpretations helped me to a new appreciation of these pieces as very different interpretive settings of Heine's poetry, no less important than Schumann's. When the emotional temperature of the song cycle plummets considerably and things take a turn for the worse for the protagonist when the beloved is lost in the second chanson, Sly's voice conveys a carefully weighted mixture of angst with ernest searching - never too overstated - and reaches the desired peak of volume at just the appropriate moment.  Sly resists the considerable temptation to which young singers often succumb, namely simple emphasis of one note, as a means of text expression.  Instead, Sly's preternatural ability to feel the ésprit of the text combined with a mature sense of long-range phrasing endows the works with a special meaning, an interpretation that only comes with hard work and a genuine marquee talent.

The third and fourth chansons, my favourites of the set, were mournful in their realization of lost love, yet they were gently understated and appropriately subtle.  Sly communicated the funereal final chanson with a direct naturalness, with the correct amount of vocal power, always without strain, and always with a clear sense of how to explicate the cycle's poetic beauty.  If he can do all this now, one ought to look forward to how much more interpretively he will accomplish in the decades to come.  The song cycle was an unequivocal success and moved many in attendance to say at intermission that it was their favourite.

The final set of the first half featured the contrasting Maurice Ravel three songs "Don Quichotte a Dulcinée."  While often very naturally communicated and easily managed by Sly, he never quite equalled the Spanish élan evinced in Grant's delightful rendering of Ravel's Iberian piano rhythms.  Sly's focus was thoroughly French, and to be fair, successful in that way.  However the literary allusions to Quichotte's naïvely arcane sense of chivalry and ironic heroism are expressive requirements to meet Ravel's intention for these pieces. Overall the set was beautifully sung but nevertheless also lacked a certain variety of tone, once again, as demanded by the text.  Still, Sly's dramatic approach to the cycle was a welcome one, and it was certainly pulled off musically well.

The second half featured two sets of German lieder, beginning with Hugo Wolf's famous  last set of Michelangelo songs (1897), here presented in their string quartet accompaniment arrangement. This was an unqualified success and for me the highlight of the night.   The opportunity for Sly to sing such mature works and to blend with a quartet was certainly a tremendous one, and he rose fully to the occasion.  Sly's understanding of the text painting and blend with late Romantic string quartet technique, including Wolf's natural lyricism, showed a breadth of maturity beyond his years. The second song in particular was moving, and featured a perfect combination of his naturally resonsant baritone harmonizing with the low setting of the quartet.  Often, each phrase came off as carefully crafted, as if sculpted by his voice out of marble for our intimate acoustic space.  To hear the quartet so subtly nuanced in the second song at the line "alles endet was entstehet" ("all ends what has arisen"), combined with Sly's exquisite reading of this whole text was as good as that phrase and this song can get, replete with all the poignancy Wolf meant for it to have both artistically and biographically at this point in the composer's life, when he was deeply laid in a depressive state. The third song was emotionally nearly overwhelming, set to expanded tonal intensity, suffused with elegiac loveliness, each phrase dripping with intensity.  It was a masterpiece of expression and an experience of Wolf I will never forget.  I look forward to these songs being recorded for later release.

The concluding section consisting of Franz Schubert lieder only drove the emotional temperature of this recital of mostly serious songs higher still.  "Der Tod und das Mädchen," the famous dialogue lied, with its ominous opening, was outstandingly interpreted, and concluded perfectly.  The set continued with  "Erster Verlust" and Sly showed considerable beauty of tone and musical maturity. Sly adapted easily from song to song, and showed his ability to change the atmosphere with the contrasting worlds of the folksy lightheartedness found in "Lachen und Weinen" to the darker world of the deceptively simple "Ständchen."  With its word-painted modal mixtures, Sly navigated its tonal difficulties well with true emotive power.

"Der Doppelgänger," the last song Schubert published, with its blackest vision yet of any protagonist, who here sees his own double aping him the night he lost his love, is one of the most difficult of Schubert lieder to interpret, with its long-held notes and long-breathed phrases.  Each line was sung powerfully, convincingly, and Sly commanded everyone's perfect attention with every phrase, as was often the case throughout the night.  In the notorious modulation to the suitably alien key of D sharp minor, Sly pushes for rhythmic expression rather than slowing at this point, to depict the strange otherness of the protagonist's identification with the Doppelgänger's psychological reality. It worked to good effect and is one of the finer versions of the song I have heard.

The contemplative "Wanderers Nachtlied," depicting a night over still waters, demands a fine use of harmonic coloration and certainly was one of the most beautiful moments of the recital, particularly at the line "warte nur warte nur, balde ruhest du auch" (wait, only wait; soon you too will rest"). This beautiful set, and the evening's outstanding recital earned Mr. Sly a well-deserved standing ovation and we all knew what was obvious:  Philippe Sly shows all the signs of evolving into one of the premier baritones of his generation.  It will be exciting to watch and listen to him in the years to come.