Allan Kozinn has a fairly rave review of Eric Owens's recital at Zankel Hall on Tuesday night. I agree in most particulars — this was a formidable outing from a singer who has become one of the most riveting artists on the operatic scene. What I like most about Owens is that he is incautious, testing the capabilities of his voice rather than following a safe route. (He explained his philosophy in an excellent interview with Steve Smith in the Times.) His choice to sing an all-French second half was the adventure here, and it wasn't entirely persuasive; the Debussy and Ravel songs were lacking in lighter-than-air lyricism, and the diction wasn't as crisp as in the German first half. (I had a hard time forgetting Gerald Finley's gossamer Ravel at Zankel in 2010.) Yet Owens's intellectual engagement with the music was clear, and he certainly had the right voice for Duparc's somewhat heavier "L'Invitation au voyage" and "La vague et la cloche," not to mention Wagner's early "Les deux grenadiers." And the German songs — Wolf's Michelangelo Gedichte, four Schumann Lieder, and Schubert's "Prometheus," "Fahrt zum Hades," and "Gruppe aus dem Tartarus" — were tremendous: fully inhabited, at times operatically potent, rich in subtlety. Wolf's "Alles endet, was entstehet" was flat-out extraordinary, giving an oblique preview of the Wotan that Owens is likely to sing in a few years' time. For the reprise of the opening phrase ("Everything ends which comes to be"), he adopted a shiveringly hushed, whispery timbre, as if staring into the abyss; I could hear him singing "Das Ende!" in Act II of Die Walküre. Then, no less movingly, he gave a rounded tone to the very last phrase, "rings vergehet," evoking a yet deeper realm. There were similarly striking touches in the Schubert set: the imperious octave descent of "Ewigkeit!" in "Gruppe aus dem Tartarus," also very Wotanlike, will be ringing in my ears for a while.
Owens, who comes across as an immensely likable guy, bantered with the audience in the second half, expressing surprise that we hadn't left the hall. Setting up his second encore, Copland's arrangement of "Shall We Gather at the River," he joked, "This is my answer to the Schumann set." That such a buoyant personality can take us into such dark regions of the human spirit suggests that Owens is essentially capable of anything.