Ewa Podles / Garrick Ohlsson - Wigmore Hall, 21 December 2009
While many of her contemporaries have switched to character roles or drifted quietly into retirement, Ewa Podleś, at nearly 60, continues to amaze with the barely dimmed power and vitality of her unique voice. A true contralto ('the only one', she claims), her smoky, air-cushioned timbre has acquired a velvety patina up top, but it remains secure and accurate. And what a rare pleasure to hear such dead-on pitch - every note hits bullseye. A scarlet caftan and matching heels hint at glamour. They're countered by a mumsy demeanour and no-nonsense roller set. In the context of her profession it's a bold, brave image that throws all the attention back on the voice.
Nothing about Podleś is ordinary, and that includes her Wigmore programme. When were Mieczysław Karłowicz's songs last performed in London? The nine Podleś chose shared a folk-tinged simplicity. Poems of love and loss, Podleś gave them her emotive all, but it was hard not to feel a first-rate talent was being expended on less than first-rate material.
Musorgsky's seven Detskaya (Nursery) songs followed, an opportunity for Podleś to exercise her comedy chops with a little infantile humour. Her delivery was whole-hearted yet unforced. So why, a few onomatopoeiac lines aside, weren't they funny? I suspect the humour is too text-based to be grasped unless you understand Russian well, and I don't. Timing is everything, and even with the translation on my lap, I couldn't identify exactly where the laughs were located.
A Chopin Impromptu and Fantaisie from her genial and empathetic piano sidekick Garrick Ohlsson introduced the second half with understated elegance, if not quite the spoiling, transporting experience Ingrid Fliter had offered just a few days before.
Haydn's lengthy and dramatic cantata Arianna a Naxos was the stirring finale, displaying Podleś at her elemental best. Wringing desire and torment from the notes with increasing abandon, her final, shocking, bellowed barbaro! seemed to erupt spontaneously from deep within.
If there's one thing the programme lacked, it was the laser-cut coloratura Podleś is perhaps best known for. Problem sorted with her two rousing Rossini encores, Cruda sorte! Amor tiranno! from L'Italiana in Algeri (with a backing chorus of Ohlsson and his page turner) and Canzonetta Spagnuola.
Here they both are, recorded in Poland in 1998:
DIARY DATE - Ewa Podleś makes a long overdue return to Covent Garden in July 2011 as Madame de la Haltière in Massenet's Cendrillon.