Ewa Podles, contralto; Garrick Ohlsson, pianist. Wigmore Hall Live 0027; CD.

THE Polish contralto Ewa Podles is an indomitable singer with a big, earthy, intensely expressive voice and an artistic personality to match. She has won an almost cultish following for her portrayals of operatic roles from Rossini to Strauss. You might think her oversize artistry would be unsuited to song literature, but she has a thriving recital career.

The illustrious Wigmore Hall in London has joined the roster of institutions issuing recordings of live performances. A new release offers Ms. Podles in a recital from January 2008 with the superb American pianist Garrick Ohlsson. Wigmore Hall is an intimate space, and it cannot have been easy for recording engineers to capture Ms. Podles’s force-of-nature voice. If the size of her live sound does not come through so faithfully here, the vibrancy of her singing most certainly does.

She opens with five songs by Chopin in Polish, sung with gripping intensity. Chopin the Frenchified master of counterpoint and chromatic harmony is nowhere present here. Ms. Podles and Mr. Ohlsson, who plays beautifully, reclaim Chopin as a Polish original.

Ms. Podles, who has made a specialty of the Russian song repertory, sings piercing and impassioned accounts of songs by Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky. If you can adjust to the sweep and power of her singing, you will discover rich subtlety and keen attention to nuances of text in her work.

After Mr. Ohlsson’s coolly brilliant performance of Szymanowski’s wild and fanciful “Masques” for solo piano, he and Ms. Podles conclude with a transfixing account of Mussorgsky’s harrowing “Songs and Dances of Death.” Be warned that this recording includes the bravos and applause from Ms. Podles’s ardent fans in London. The enthusiasm is understandable.

April 3, 2009

by Anthony Tommasini