In the German songs, Mr. Owens's voice had a fierce, gravelly quality; for the French ones, he shifted gears entirely, caressing the vowels with a rounded, mellow tone and employing an entirely different set of vocal colors. His Debussy songs were lovely: He ended "Beau soir," with a phrase that sounded like a sigh; "Fleurs des blés" was playful, with a sense of wonder as he described each wildflower and dropped to a pianissimo that you could hear at the back of the hall; the lightness he brought to "L'âme évaporée" felt especially remarkable emanating from such a big man. Henri Duparc's "L'invitation au voyage" had an unaffected serenity that seemed very personal. In the three Spanish-inflected Ravel songs of "Don Quichotte à Dulcinée," Mr. Owens brought out three different aspects of the knight's character: gently romantic; stately and formal in prayer; and finally letting loose as the unabashed, comic drinker.
In his concluding song, an early Wagner work set to a French translation of a German text by Heinrich Heine, he straddled the two worlds. "Les deux grenadiers" is a patriotic number about soldiers returning to France after a defeat; one of them declares he is dying and will wait in his grave to be called again to battle (the last two stanzas are set to "La Marseillaise").
In Henry Purcell's "Music for a While," he cast the spell of music so completely that you could see Alecto's snakes "drop, drop, drop from her head" and his "Shall We Gather at the River" (which he called "my answer to the Schumann songs") was heartfelt and all-encompassing, as persuasive in affirmation as the Schumann songs were in despair."