Samuel Hasselhorn adds ‘Wow’ factor to the art song

Poised, polished and personable, young German baritone Samuel Hasselhorn’s up close and personal YCA recital introduces a rising vocal star.

Samuel Hasselhorn and Renate Rohlfing in rehearsal. (Screen capture of YouTube video clip)

WASHINGTON, February 12, 2017 – The Young Concert Artists (YCA) Series’ latest find, German baritone Samuel Hasselhorn, introduced himself to the Washington area in an astonishingly polished recital held at the University of the District of Columbia’s Theater of the Arts.

Baritone Samuel Hasselhorn. (Photo credit: Steiner for YCA)

YCA has long demonstrated an uncanny knack for discovering the kind of superb young musical artists at precisely the time they’re ready to blossom into greatness, and Mr. Hasselhorn is one of their latest discoveries.

Accompanied by pianist Renate Rohlfing, this tall, elegant and personable young vocalist delivered an outstanding and marvelously varied recital of art songs in German, English and French to a rapt audience that, unfortunately, should have been a bit larger than it was.

The music and lyrics of Mr. Hasselhorn’s selections ranged from the passionately romantic to the grimly tragic, punctuated at midpoint by a selection of humorous songs that, like the comic scenes in Shakespeare’s tragedies, provided a bit of emotional relief before returning us to the more serious and thoughtful stuff.

Mr. Hasselhorn’s program opened with a selection of songs by Robert Schumann—a genuine treat for fans of this composer who infrequently get a chance to hear his vocal music in this country.

The initial pairing of Schumann songs—Tragödie 1 and 2—were clearly inspired by the composer’s legendarily difficult courtship of his soon-to-be wife, the young piano prodigy Clara Wieck, with the first of the two directly reflecting the couple’s experiences.

From the outset, Mr. Hasselhorn demonstrated to the audience that his recital would feature not only his outstanding vocal artistry, but his powerful ability to interpret the sung texts as well.

Back in the day, American pop vocalists like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby were not only renowned for their voices. They were uncannily able to “sell a song,” in the parlance of music writers. In other words, they were accomplished vocal storytellers, able to go well beyond the tune and deliver a convincing dramatic or humorous scenario as well.

In an entirely different way and in an entirely different musical repertoire, Mr. Hasselhorn demonstrated the same set of skills during his recital, not only in the opening pair of Schumann songs but in the rest of his program as well. His articulation of the highly-charged emotions present in each of these deeply personal songs was gripping, indeed visceral, adding a surprising “Wow” factor to his performance that we don’t often see in art song recitals.

In this context, it’s not surprising that Mr. Hasselhorn has already appeared in a number of opera productions. He knows how to get inside a character or persona, and this impressive ability was notable from the outset of this recital.

The remaining Schumann songs on the program were deftly and convincingly articulated as well, particularly the dramatic song-story “Die beiden Grenadiere” (roughly, “The two grenadiers” or soldiers), Op. 49, No. 1, which describes the anguish of a pair of Napoleonic-era French POWs being marched off to an uncertain fate after the French dictator’s disastrous Russian campaign.

In this song’s initial half, the soldiers express anguish and despair over their miserable lot and commiserate with one another as they contemplate death. Yet the song shifts midpoint as both soldiers take courage by launching into an uplifting remembrance of the homeland, shifting to the tune of the “Marseillaise.”

Impressively, Mr. Hasselhorn went right along with Schumann’s musical program, expressing deep sorrow and depression in his authoritative lower vocal range throughout this song’s initial verses, but then shifting to a brighter vocal presentation as the two soldiers took courage in their patriotism.

The first half of Mr. Hasselhorn’s program concluded on a lighter note, with a quartet of amusing English folk songs re-set to the interesting and sometimes eccentric modernist harmonies of Benjamin Britten. Shifting to well-articulated English, Mr. Hasselhorn captured the artful humor in each song, lightening the mood of his program just prior to the intermission.

In the program’s second half, the artist continued his exploration of early-to-late Romantic and contemporary art songs, visiting the music of Hugo Wolf, Franz Schubert and Francis Poulenc en route.

After an interesting interpretation of Wolf’s dramatic monologue “Der Feuerreiter,” whose story of a burning mill conjures up visions of a descent into hell. As in “Die beiden Grenadiere,” Mr. Hasselhorn put the audience right into the scene, presenting a virtually cinematic essay in music.

Again changing the mood, the artist shifted to a selection of three songs by the eclectic mid-20th century French composer Francis Poulenc. Poulenc’s music is modern, accessible, but notable for its occasionally acidic harmonies, and each of this trio of songs is a meditation on war, death and the hereafter, in keeping with the evening’s developing motif, highlighting songs of love and death, sometimes in the context of war.

The final Poulenc song, “Priez pour paix” (“Pray for peace”), articulates the composer’s gradual and seminal return to his Catholic roots in mid-career and uses the form of a prayer to the Virgin Mary to express his horror of war and longing for peace. Mr. Hasselhorn entered into the composer’s spirit, delicately and earnestly articulating the lyrics of this song-prayer so convincingly that more than a few members of the audience found themselves wiping away a tear. It was a most impressive performance, and the artist’s French diction and phrasing was marvelously clear and fluid.

An artistic rendition of the Erlkönig in hot pursuit. (Public domain photo via Wikipedia entry on Goethe’s eponymous poem)

Mr. Hasselhorn concluded his program with a quartet of Franz Schubert’s always-wonderful songs, leading off with the composer’s familiar, frantic and dramatic “Erlkönig” (“Erl-king” or “Elf-king)” sung to the poetic words of Johann Goethe. This is yet another vivid story-song telling the tale of a father’s ill-fated rescue attempt of his son from the clutches of a malign spirit.

Similar again to “Grenadiere” and “Feuerreiter,” Schubert’s musical setting pulsates with the rhythm of a galloping horse and an impending sense of horror and doom, all of which was brilliantly painted by Mr. Hasselhorn, who rendered the story vocally in crisp, dark, fateful tones.

We discovered a YouTube version of this song, sung by Mr. Hasselhorn and accompanied by Ms. Rohlfing. It’s probably the best way to support our comments.

At the conclusion of this program, the audience demanded an encore and got one as the artist returned to the stage to sing Schubert’s very last song, a hymn to the arts and their restorative powers, having earlier explained that his program was meant to shed light on our current tumultuous times while hoping for a brighter, less violent and fraught future. In an age of nasty and highly partisan politics, Mr. Hasselhorn’s approach stood out for its distinctive reasonableness and lack of hyperbole.

This was a recital where “you had to be there” to fully grasp the surprising robustness, breadth, depth and—paradoxically—the sheer vocal authority and mastery demonstrated by this still-rising young baritone. If there is justice in the classical firmament, Mr. Hasselhorn will in just a few short years, be numbered among the finest of a new generation of classical vocalists.

Rating: **** (Four out of four stars)

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