Saturday night was indeed violently stormy, as courageous concert-goers braved a heavy downpour and overhead lightning to hear baritone Sanford Sylvan and fortepianist David Breitman perform Franz Schubert’s beloved song cycle, Die Winterreise (Winter Journey) for Monadnock Music’s final ticketed concert of the season. Inside the 1918 Peterborough Town House, a prime example of the aesthetically pleasing Federal-Revival architecture (think Charles Bulfinch) that characterizes so many civic buildings built in New England during the latter 19th and early 20th centuries, the audience was bathed in the unexpected glow of the emergency lighting system. The recital was held in the second-floor, multi-purpose auditorium, where the simple stage, under a minimally-ornamented, squared proscenium arch, opens to a rectangular seating area lined with large, multi-paned windows.
Sylvan, a baritone who performs throughout the world, and Breitman, Director of the Historical Performance Program at Oberlin College, have collaborated for more than 30 years. They positioned themselves on the floor in front of the stage, in a manner pleasantly reminiscent of the community concerts once supported by local “cultural societies”. This re-creation of an earlier chapter of musical history extended to Breitman’s use of his own fortepiano, a replica of an 1819 Conrad Graf constructed by Paul McNulty.
Artistic Director Gil Rose remarked before the concert about the suitability of the evening’s stormy conditions for the cycle’s non-narrative but stormily expressive depiction of a young man suffering from unrequited love. Unlike Schubert’s other famous cycle, Die schöne Müllerin (The Beautiful Miller-Maid), Die Winterreise does not employ a narrative relating the progress of events; rather it utilizes poet Wilhelm Müller’s naturalistic imagery to present psychological disintegration. Sylvan and Breitman handled these shifts beautifully. Though not every note fell perfectly into place (a rare occurrence anyhow, outside the illusions of the recording studio), Sylan’s rich, supple baritone, which might have been too large for the space, were it not coupled with his impeccable, poetic phrasing, was expertly partnered by Breitman’s instrumental evocations of the emotions of each song. Both artists partook of every moment of the long “journey,” earning a rousing ovation.
In the opening song, the strophic “Gute Nacht” (Good Night), they employed distinct and text-motivated timbres for each verse, aided for the final verse by Schubert’s shift to the major mode. The interplay between the two was particularly effective in “Erstarrung” (Numbness), as the pianoforte’s depiction of the wind-driven snow (reminiscent of the composer’s Erlkönig) evokes a state of physical numbness that serves as a metaphor for the young man’s emotional state. Another masterful coordination was heard in “Auf dem Flusse” (On the river); both artists executed a brief, almost imperceptible pause at the opening of the final strophe, supported by the poetic shift from the naturalistic metaphors of the first four strophes to sorrowful introspection. Sylvan’s dramatic comportment, engaging throughout the cycle, was brilliantly displayed in his subtle yet poignant reaction to the dropping of the final leaf from a tree as autumn turned to winter, representing the loss of the young man’s final, desperate hope of romantic requite. In the closing song, the young man sees his own emotional and social detachment in the “Der Leiermann” (Hurdy-Gurdy Man), whom the performers represented through the droning hurdy-gurdy accompaniment and subtle hesitations, perfectly executing the cycle’s poignant close.
Joel Schwindt is a PhD candidate in Musicology at Brandeis University. In addition to performing as a vocalist and conductor, he has been published by the Baerenreiter-Verlag publishing house and the Choral Journal.