Album Reviews

Bryn Terfel – Simple Gifts

(Deutsche Grammophon) UK release date: 10 October 2005

The irrepressible, much loved Welshman gets back on the crossover trail for this album, taking in a wide range of mostly Western music as his inspiration, from traditional music to a recent piece in his honour from the composer Karl Jenkins. Most of the chosen repertoire has religious connotations, but again here Terfel takes an open approach, including a couple of works with Mormon roots.

His voice is once again very easy to listen to, and admirably rich in sonority. To his credit he also shows commendable restraint when faced with the no doubt frequent temptation to indulge in expressive devices such as rubato or portamento.

Most of these temptations arise courtesy of Chris Hazell‘s arrangements, which begin to cloy after a while, the effect as you go through the album similar to going through the first layer of a box of chocolates.

With the LSO at his disposal, Hazell has crafted some often attractive instrumentation, but goes a bit heavy on the syrup where the strings are concerned, creating a Sunday afternoon haze. Amazing Grace is a high-profile casualty to this approach, as is Morning Has Broken, where the flute ‘blackbird’ sounds rather cheesy.

Let that not detract from Bryn, however, who is on good form here, full of voice but tempered where necessary, such as in the vocal arrangement of Cavatina, where guitarist John Williams adds a thoughtful counterpoint.

Other guests include Aled Jones, whose reedy contribution to Panis Angelicus is less than comfortable to listen to as the singers’ respective tones clash.

More effective are the two collaborations with fellow baritone Simon Keenlyside, and in particular the opening of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, a breath of fresh air with its taut LSO string sound and wonderful vocal interaction.

Of the traditional material, How Great Thou Art, of Swedish origin believe it or not, works well, with a full-blooded climax. So too, for the most part, does the American spiritual Deep River, though here the pace needed quickening, the first evidence of the soupy orchestral textures taking hold.

The title track is also a bit slow, and Terfel opts not to approach with wide-eyed innocence, more the voice of experience – it works nonetheless.

Meanwhile the opening Mozart is a highlight, a straight arrangement for soloist, choir and orchestra that is genuinely moving, and the Jenkins, a short piece, is also softly affecting in its way.

Like the choice of repertoire, then, a mixed bag, but if you�ve gone for Terfel’s appeal in the past you won�t be disappointed by the quantity and much of the quality on offer.

He deserves credit for an immensely varied programme, one that, if not appealing to all tastes, will certainly introduce something new to those who listen. Refreshingly unpretentious, it should sell by the bucket load towards the end of this year.

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More on Bryn Terfel
The Flying Dutchman review – a strong cast excels in Wagner’s storm-lashed opera at The Royal Opera House
Philharmonia review: Bryn Terfel proves he’s still a master of his art when it comes to Wagner
Sir Bryn Terfel / Britten Sinfonia @ Barbican Hall, London
Don Pasquale @ Royal Opera House, London
Bryn and Zen @ Grange Park Opera, West Horsley