Only a brave singer would have chosen the songs that Simon Estes did in the first half of his recital yesterday afternoon at Morgan State University. The bass-baritone began with Mozart's dark concert aria, "Mentre Ti Lascio, O Figlia," followed it with three of Schubert's saddest songs -- "Aufenthalt," "In der Ferne," and "Der Atlas" -- and concluded with Brahms' "Vier Ernste Gasange," perhaps the most somber thing that serious composer ever wrote.
But Estes is a great singer as well as a courageous one. As his material descended to ever more profound depths, he ascended to greater artistic heights. The Mozart was noble in delivery and the melancholic effects in the Schubert songs were carefully gauged.
The singer's sensitivity to nuance was at its best in the Brahms work. Here the composer asks the singer and his pianist to keep to subdued dynamic levels, to move slowly and to hover in the lowest registers. This demands a great deal of a singer's interpretive skills and asks a lot of his ability to support and control his voice. Estes took the listener inside the composer's dark but strangely consoling universe. The singing was remarkable for anyone, particularly for a man in his 54th year. Each of Estes' registers is beautiful and his bottom range particularly glorious.
The second half of the recital went from strength to strength. The singer opened with the soul-baring cavatina from Rachmaninov's opera, "Aleko." Estes first came to celebrity in 1966 when he won Moscow's Tchaikovsky Competition and he has always identified closely with Russian music. Estes' performance of this piece was scorching.
Just as fine were three show tunes -- Rodgers and Hammer
stein's "You'll Never Walk Alone" and "Climb Every Mountain," and Jerome Kern's "Ol' Man River." Every opera singer loves Broadway material, but few sing it as well as Estes does. "Ol' Man River" was delivered with extraordinary dignity and emotional intensity -- the best performance this listener has heard since William Warfield was in his prime.
An early deadline and another concert prevented this reviewer from listening to the singer finish the recital with a selection of spirituals.
One cavil: Estes was partnered by the splendid Julius Tilghman on a piano that should have been scrapped long ago. Surely, there must be someone out there who can raise $50,000 so that Morgan State can acquire a decent concert instrument.