Bryn Terfel - Biography
It’s hard to believe, but ‘Dreams and Songs’ is Bryn Terfel’s first new album since he recorded ‘Homeward Bound’ with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in 2013. It’s also his first album since he was knighted in the 2017 New Year Honours. What took him so long?
“It’s to do with my heavy workload,” admits the fabled bass-baritone, whose diary is permanently crammed with engagements stretching at least three years ahead. “Taking on Wagnerian roles takes a huge amount of time, especially if it involves new productions of the Ring Cycle as in the Royal Opera House in London and the Met in New York. If you’ve got a Wagner opera to learn you’ve got to open those pages a year in advance.”
‘Dreams and Songs’ gives Bryn an opportunity to blow off some steam by singing some of his most popular and exuberant pieces, many of which he has sung as encore pieces at his concerts and recitals. “My wonderful journey has taken me through music from Schubert to Schumann, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe, and to operas with amazing conductors and directors.” Bryn reflects. “The next idea was to take these encores and favourite pieces which are songs that I’ve sung since I was very young and at various concerts in Wales, where people love to hear these pieces. Maybe you could describe them as songs their parents would have sung to them.”
It’s part of the Terfel mystique that he can turn his hand – or voice – to almost anything, whether it’s classical, operatic, a traditional folk song or a piece from a Broadway musical, yet always make it sound as if it belongs exclusively to him. “I don’t know if there’s any secret to it, but I just enjoy singing a variety of different repertoire,” he says. “All I can do is give my interpretation and perform them to the best of my ability.”
On ‘Dreams and Songs’, it’s the different facets of the singer’s outsized personality which are on display, rather than a particular composer or a musical genre. He takes full advantage of the opportunity. He delivers Flanders & Swann’s comic classic ‘The Hippopotamus Song’ with huge, booming authority, particularly relishing the lines about mud and the joy of wallowing in it. “I’ve always loved Flanders & Swann, I listened to them repeatedly when I was a student at the Guildhall School,” he declares. “’The Hippopotamus Song’ is brilliant, and I sang it at the Last Night of the Proms last year and was amazed with the reaction from the audience.”
‘If I Were A Rich Man’ (from Fiddler On The Roof) is another show-stopper which lets Bryn step inside a larger-than-life character, illuminated by a sparklingly fresh musical arrangement. From the same musical there’s ‘Do You Love Me?’, where Bryn duets with Emma Thompson, with whom he starred in Sweeney Todd for English National Opera. Better make that Dame Emma Thompson – “she came to the recording at Abbey Road the day after it was announced she was being made a Dame, so of course the champagne corks should have been popping but there was work to be done.” And he performs a rousing new arrangement of ‘Amazing Grace’, featuring gospel piano, brass, strings and a choir, not to mention soprano Danielle de Niese.
Since this is a Terfel project, his beloved Wales is never far away. He has teamed up with his close friends, including Katherine Jenkins to sing ‘Tell My Father’ (from The Civil War), “a beautiful duet from a musical about the American Civil War”, and there’s a treat for Welsh speakers in the traditional folk song ‘Ar Lan y Môr’. From best-selling composer Sir Karl Jenkins, Penclawdd’s favourite son, there’s a new piece written especially for Bryn, called ‘The Shepherd Poet Of Passchendaele’. The song is inspired by the story of Welsh poet Hedd Wyn, who died on the first day of the Battle of Passchendaele (the Third Battle of Ypres), with poignant lyrics written by Sir Karl’s wife – Lady Jenkins, Carol Barratt.
When he’s not singing you’ll probably find Bryn on a golf course, hence ‘The Golfer’s Lament’, where he’s joined by fellow-countryman Rob Brydon for a rousing romp around the back nine. “You can imagine Rob crossing outside Abbey Road studios like the Beatles, when we recorded this,” says Sir Bryn. “We sang that song maybe 12 times, with Rob trying to put me off – he mimicked voices and does a wonderful Elvis Presley impersonation, but when the red recording light is on, he always strives to be better. I think it describes our love of golf to a tee.”
‘The Golfer’s Lament’ was originally written for the American baritone John Charles Thomas, a big star in the 1930s and ‘40s who has been an inspiration to Bryn because of the way he would mix operatic material with popular songs. Once, after singing Verdi’s Aida in Chicago, he came back on stage by audience demand to sing the cowboy song ‘Home On The Range’ – “to the utter shock of the Chicago critics,” Bryn chortles. “I adore singing these songs too, and even after a rather serious recital, I’ll bring them onto the platform.”
John Denver’s composition ‘Perhaps Love’ was originally recorded by Denver and Placido Domingo, though Bryn recalls singing it with Michael Ball at his festival in Faenol in north Wales. For the album, he has recorded it with tenor Alfie Boe. “Ball and Boe are very successful at the moment, so I was very lucky to steal Alfie away from Mr Ball to record this romantic piece” he says. Another choice is ‘Smile’, the evergreen favourite penned by silent movie superstar Charlie Chaplin. It’s probably fair to say that not many people know that Chaplin had a connection with Wales, but Bryn can explain. “St Donat’s Castle in the Vale of Glamorgan was bought by William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate, and Chaplin used to visit him there. The castle is now the Atlantic College, but ‘Smile’ was written by Charlie Chaplin, so it had to be on the disc.”
Meanwhile Agustin Lara’s rumbustious ‘Granada’, a long-time favourite of many an opera star, finds Terfel teaming up with Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja. “I wanted the album to have a defining theme of Britishness,” says Bryn. “You might say what’s the British connection with ‘Granada’? Well it used to be used in TV ads for Granada Television, and that was a song I knew when I was a teenager. All of a sudden I was singing it all over the world, and I once sang it with Jose Carreras. Joseph Calleja sings all over the world too, and this is a little nudge that maybe we can do some concerts together in the future.” Let’s hope they don’t have to wait three years to find a space in the diary.