in: Reviews

February 11, 2009

Muse and Angel: Schubert’s Winterreise Inspires Composition by McDonald

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Over a year ago, John McDonald – so he tells us in his program notes – was approached by Philipp Stäudlin, his colleague in the Tufts University Music Department, to think about joining him in a wordless rendition of Franz Schubert’s great song cycle, Die Winterreise (“Winter Journey”), performed on piano and alto saxophone. The idea appealed to McDonald, and what ultimately resulted was the concert given at the Goethe Institut of Boston on Sunday, February 8.  It featured McDonald’s new composition for alto sax and piano, Stäudlin as Vogl: Preamble to a Winter Journey, followed by the whole of Winterreise delivered as Stäudlin had proposed.

As the title of McDonald’s new work suggests, a year of rehearsing brought him to see Stäudlin on the saxophone in something of the light in which Schubert looked upon his own favorite singer, Johann Michael Vogl – that is, as both muse and angel: “muse,” because listening to Stäudlin’s playing inspired him to write his own duet for piano and sax; and “angel” in the original sense of “messenger,” because accompanying a saxophone instead of a voice brought him an entirely different understanding of the Schubert.

Made up of 24 short pieces (each linked to one of the songs in Schubert’s cycle) which are then divided into two parts of 12 played with almost no pause between the components, Preamble to a Winter Journey in some ways summarizes Winterreise and in other ways comments on it. Spare but never timid or understated, McDonald’s music evokes Schubert’s, sometimes melodically, often by rhythm and dynamics; but it also stands on its own as a sort of minimalist representation of the passions running through the original work. Of course those passions are now transposed for a modern ear accustomed to the brash and jazzy sounds of the sax. But their Schubertian power remains, stretched tight in a kind of wry duel between the piano and its now updated partner. McDonald’s piece is clever, hardly to be grasped in just one hearing. It works wonders all the same to put the listener in a frame of mind anticipating Schubert’s more massive composition.

This is exactly what the two performers turned to after a short intermission. In the final years of his life, Schubert worked at a feverish pace, effectively pouring his life’s blood into some of the most remarkable music ever composed. Winterreise dates from that time. Its dark and moody tones, its rapid swings from the heights of animation to the nearly paralyzed depths of reminiscence and despair, captivate in a way that perhaps only his last great piano sonatas can equal. Indeed, something of the brooding and magic lyricism of the sonatas must have been imported from these songs.

Stäudlin and McDonald worked through that entrancing but profoundly disturbing material with a magic of their own. The alto sax in Stäudlin’s hands became a human voice, amplified by the greater dynamic range of the non-human instrument. Moreover, Stäudlin has a remarkable sense of phrasing, made all the more effective by a power of breath that carried out the longest phrases with a suppleness and a drive even the best of baritones would envy. McDonald’s piano playing was crisp and clear. He, too, took care to sculpt each phrase.  Together the two performers produced a version of Schubert’s masterpiece as thoughtful and profound as any this reviewer has ever heard.

But it was, of course, a version unlike any reliant on the human voice. At times, especially in the lower registers, the sound of the saxophone blended with that of the piano so perfectly that it was impossible to separate the two. Since there was no danger of the piano overwhelming the sax, the dynamics of the piece could range from the most shattering fortissimo to the wispiest piano without either instrument foregoing its clarity of voice. And without words, the lines of the music were freed to express themselves without the mediation language inevitably interposes.

Since I know the piece like an old friend, I can’t say what impression this performance of it would have made upon someone for whom the absence of words literally divorced the cycle completely from the text, for I followed along mentally, singing the words silently in my head.  But I can say that I heard the music in a way that I never have before. It was as if I could savor each note in its absolute purity, at the same time remembering how the meaning of the whole was shaped by a text. Schubert’s marvelous creation was given, I am tempted to say, an added dimension. In the sensitive hands of these two performers, the artistic potentialities thereby opened up were realized with exquisite execution. What a stroke of genius to play the work this way. Even Schubert would have discovered something in the music he had not known was there before.

Steven Marrone is a professor of Medieval and Early Modern History at Tufts University.   Once trained in voice, he sometimes still yearns for the life of a musician.

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