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A Real Artist: Three Cheers for Pooh - Robert Tear, Philip Ledger

The MHS Review 356 Vol 9, No 14 1985

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David M. Greene

Robert Tear is a real artist. He has developed a formidable technique, which he uses to add marvelously subtle coloring to what he sings, and he knows exactly what he is singing about and wants you to understand it (i.e. he sings with both clarity and intelligence).

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I am bemused, and perhaps a little heartened, by what seems to be the Robert Tear phenomenon. This makes the umpteenth Tear record the Society has issued. Now, admitedly I do not understand the business mind. My mother-who triumphantly managed to get rid of 600 acres of prime Virginia farmland for 40 thou-told me that when I was seven. But my guess is that enough of you out there have been buying Tear records to encourage the Society's economic thinkers.


If so, your response has been remarkable. It is accepted as fact in the record industry that song recitals on record-even when sung by vocal superstars-are even less salable than discs of Minni Schmo from Kokomo reading her own poetry. Though voice fanciers know him well enough, Mr. Tear does not, I think, qualify as a superstar. Nor, even accounting for tastes, does he-middle-aged, bearded, and egg-bald-qualify as a matinee idol. Nor, in terms of vocal aesthetics, is he a Pavarotti.


To be a great tenor one has either to be brazen (like Caruso, del Monaco, Corelli) or sweet (Tauber, Gigli, Kraus). Tear fits neither category. I started to say that few English tenors within memory have. But "English tenor" (at least at the international level) is virtually a contradic­tion in terms, and, anyhow, Tear is Welsh. (I know, 'cause I looked it up, sensing I was heading for possible embarrassment!) Welsh tenors (Evan Williams, Stuart Borrows) are uniformly sweet. Tear isn't. His voice appears to be of moderate size and has a thewy quality about it. It sounds like a "made" voice-one ob­tained at the cost of study, work, and the use of intelligence.


So what's been the attraction? One might guess, cynically, "herd instinct." (After all, people with no voices at all become overnight millionaires in the pop field, thanks to clever pro­motion and human gullibility.) But that's not like­ly, given the widespread nature of the Society's membership.


Repertoire has somethi􀀰ng to do with it-the "Pooh" songs (MHS 4617M), the Britten-arranged folksongs (MHS 4792Y,, those lovely programs of Victorian and Edwardian schlock (MHS 4660L, 4835T). But I prefer to think it mostly a matter of taste: i.e., you recognize real artistry when you hear it. For Robert Tear is a real artist. He has developed a formidable technique, which he uses to add marvelously subtle coloring to what he sings, and he knows exactly what he is singing about and wants you to understand it (i.e. he sings with both clarity and intelligence).


What he offers here is an interesting pairing­one that might not at first occur to one as mak­ing much sense. But in his youth Benjamin Brit­ten was (perhaps mercifully) prevented from stu­dying with Alban Berg, and, maturing at the onset of the great Mahler revival, he was in his early stages much influenced by Mahler-a fact which he seems to have acknowledged in dedicating the Nocturne to Alma Mahler (Hail to thee, 0 Alma Mahler!), the composers· widow.


Song was in Gustav Mahler's blood, and though he made his ultimate reputation on his towering symphonic structures, they were never very far from the lyric impulse-more often than not actually embodying vocal portions. The Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen is a work of his early maturity, as the title implies ("Songs of a Traveling Man" or "Songs of a Journeyman? )He was both, at the time, in more than one sense. After brief conducting stints in small towns, the boondocks, and inferior posts, he found his first relatively important job at the municipal opera in Kassel-an experience heightened and blighted by a passionate affair with the soprano Johanna Richter.


To his own lyrics Mahler set this cycle about love and loss in (figuratively) his own blood. He finished it in 1884 but set it aside for a dozen years, orchestrating it in the 1890s. However, never one to let his creations lie fallow, he wove much of the material into the first Symphony, as admirers of that popular work will recognize. Tear's rendition is utterly individual and enor­mously sensitive; one may startle at some of his tempi, but one grasps his rationale for choosing them.


I was introducted to Britten's music through the initial recording (with Peter Pears and Dennis Brain, the dedicatees) of the Serenade, op. 31 for tenor, horn, and strings (1943), and have never gotten over the experience or the work, a remarkable evocation of the coming-on of night set to texts by various standard English poets. Fif­teen years later Britten wrote the Nocturne, a follow up on the same pattern, save that each song uses a different obbligato instrument instead of the horn. Concerned with deep night and sleep, it has less variety of mood than the earlier work-and more subtlety.


Tear, who has worked closely with Peter Pears, Britten's chief musical voice, and with the com­poser himself, has become unofficially Pears' suc­cessor. I prefer his rendition of the Nocturne, which profits especially from his immaculate dic­tion and from the brilliant recording (which ap­plies to both works).

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