Bryn Terfel

Simple Gifts

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What is this Bryn Terfel collection, exactly, that contains "Simple Gifts," the beginning of Pergolesi's "Stabat Mater," "Send in the Clowns," and even "The Rose" (not the one e'er blooming, but the Bette Midler or Conway Twitty vehicle)? It is, per the back cover text, Bryn's "personal collection of sacred, spiritual, and meditative songs." The album still might seem like quite a hodgepodge to a browser reading the tracklist, but it is exactly the elusiveness of the thread connecting these songs that makes this a superior example of the crossover vocal species. The key to the program is the large presence of American music, with six American pieces (one of them Mormon) plus several others, such as "How Great Thou Art" (originally Swedish), that are known to the world as American songs even though they originally came from somewhere else. Terfel sings these like a native, which is actually less remarkable than it sounds (his native language is Welsh, not English, so neither accent is "normal" for him), and he uses a certain quality of American religiosity, either down-to-earth and luminous or warm-and-fuzzy depending on your perspective, as a springboard for the whole presentation. What Terfel grasps, as so few other Europeans do, is that Americans feel the same when they hear "The Rose" as when they soak up positive platitudes from their spiritual leaders. Into this framework Terfel fits an impressive variety of other music, a good deal of it traditional. There is one of the Welsh hymns he does so well; there is the English chestnut "I'll Walk Beside You"; there is a familiar Australian hymn called "Bless This House"; there is some John Rutter and the Bach/Gounod "Ave Maria." But the American hymns are the best of all; Terfel realizes, maybe even better than Lowell Mason himself, that "Nearer My God to Thee" was a feel-good piece, not a meditation on death. Terfel sticks to the middle of his range, but he does a great deal within the boundaries he chooses. He moves imperceptibly from crooning in the popular songs to a tamped-down operatic vocalism in the classical selections. A few duets with other singers offer variety in a program that, far from not hanging together, actually starts to seem like too much of a good thing. With lots of singers trying to deliver the big crossover albums, Bryn Terfel just may have done it with this one. If you're looking for warm sounds to fill your living room in winter, don't miss these.

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