Quasthoff offers light amid dark
‘Let’s start the journey,’’ said Thomas Quasthoff, glancing over at pianist Justus Zeyen to begin a recital that juxtaposed amusing spoken commentary with music that was dark, immense, and often powerful.
The eminent bass-baritone, presented by Celebrity Series of Boston at a packed Jordan Hall, began with a mosaic of Schubert songs, starting with “Prometheus’’ (D. 674). Quasthoff amplified the sense of strangeness in this work, which closes in a tonality different from the one in which it begins. Sung with the fluidity of operatic fantasy, it remained beautifully unresolved.
“Grenzen der Menschheit’’ (D. 716) was followed by “Erlkönig,’’ in which Quasthoff differentiated among the characters by quickly changing the color of his voice. “Im Frühling’’ (D. 882) closed the Schubert set in a lyrical and melancholy mood.
During a break, Quasthoff drew the audience’s attention to two oval windows on a pair of entrance doors in Jordan Hall. He could see through them to the street doors, and every time someone opened those, it seemed to him as if the hall doors were winking. “I thought I was on drugs or something,’’ quipped Quasthoff, “or that I had drunk Boston water!’’
Then after a brief introduction to the next cycle he lunged back into drama with Frank Martin’s “Sechs Monologe aus ‘Jedermann.’ ’’ We were left at intermission to absorb this masterpiece of sustained intensity and existential struggle.
Quasthoff teased the noisy audience during the second half of the program, asking for less hearing-aid feedback and fewer text messages. Later he asked for less sharp coughing between songs. “These songs are about death,’’ said Quasthoff with a smile, “but you don’t have to prove it immediately.’’
The second half was all Brahms: the “Fünf Lieder’’ (Op. 94), followed by “Vier ernste Gesänge’’ (Op. 121). There were memorable moments, particularly in Op. 121, in which Quasthoff brought clarity and vivid color to familiar but complex music.
There were three encores: “Auf dem Kirchhofe’’ (Op. 105, No. 4) by Brahms, “Seligkeit’’ (D. 433) by Schubert, and “Unüberwindlich’’ (Op. 72, No 5) by Brahms.
Just as Quasthoff began singing the first line of “Seligkeit,’’ which is ironically about “joys without number,’’ he stopped the song and asked Zeyen to start again. “[Expletive] happens!’’ he said of his mistake, and they took it from the top once again.