The crowded music room of the Goethe Institut-Boston was the scene last night of a pleasant read-through of Schubert’s Winterreise. Pianist Victor Rosenbaum, veteran interpreter of the Viennese master, invited baritone Georg Lehner aus Wien, a friend of many decades, for Boston-area performances of the cycle, which include a benefit for Massachusetts Peace Action at Harvard Epworth Church on February 1st.
I’ve been agonizing about how to say this, but a pleasant performance of Schubert’s surpassingly great observation on the human condition is not enough. Many are the ways to approach this work, which male singers and partnering pianists forever look to as challenge, something they will perform after years, when they acquire depth of experience. Great performances have come in radically differing interpretations from distinct personalities, and we all have our favorites. Hans Hotter’s recording with Gerald Moore approaches the journey in a patient arc with emotion developing gradually. Heldentenor Jon Vickers wallops us with intensity and deep engagement from the first song [here], and we wonder where he can go from there, but we follow him and are shattered with him. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau looks upon the work as high art and colors each word and phrase as if each line is a journey. In 2009 at the Goethe Institut-Boston, saxophonist Phillip Stäudlin gave a surprisingly inevitable take on the winter journey with pianist John McDonald. According to BMInt’s Steven Marrone (see review here), “Together the two performers produced a version of Schubert’s masterpiece as thoughtful and profound as any this reviewer has ever heard.”
Without deepest artistry and engagement we have merely a Blumenstrauss, a bouquet of nice songs. One need not always wait for an accumulation of years of suffering before scaling this Olympus, though, and it’s a myth that it’s an old man’s song cycle: The story of love, loss and longing for the grave would not constitute a tragedy for an elderly protagonist, and of course Schubert himself never grew old in years. Let’s posit rather that this is a cycle for performers of any age who can identify with the emotions in Müller’s poetry and have the chops to convey it both theatrically and musically.
The opening song, “Gute Nacht,” is not an easy one on which to warm up. In the original key, D minor, it opens with the word fremd on F above middle C. Not easy for a baritone, so Lehner used a middle-voice edition which dropped the key to C minor and the opening note to E-flat—but it lowered the bottom note to a low B-flat, also not easy for him. In the middle of its range, Lehner’s instrument has fine color and projection, but the top and bottom no longer sound youthful, at least last night, and he was reported to have appeared quite spent upon leaving the hall.
The transposition, and the use of a modern piano, made the accompaniments muddy and dark. And Rosenbaum did not lighten the chord voicings or vary the textures in the way Gerald Moore would have, especially in strophic repeats where more variety and less pedaling would have mitigated. Not that there weren’t some moments of Schubertian sunshine in the playing, but withal, it rather plodded. A noted Schubert player, Rosenbaum here seemed an emotionally distant follower, and rarely a goad and fellow traveler.
As Lehner is a perfectly fine singer, each song had moments of excellent technique, but he is not a great actor either in tonal character or facial expression. Much of the time his visage was static with a wan smile. And from the beginning of the cycle to the end, there were little cumulative effect and no sense of journey.
Let’s consider “Frülingstraum,” no. 11, which many find to be something of a hairpin turn in the journey. Its alternations between hopeful nostalgia and angry despair lead to a more unrelievedly bleak second half. A great singing actor, or acting singer, must embody distinct personae, almost as dramatically as in “Erlkönig.” But here we had only loud and soft from singer and pianist alike—no real differences in either coloration or character. And no foreboding.
The last two songs, “Die Nebensonnen” and “Der Leiermann,” were performed without pause. One felt the pair’s exhaustion yet detected no existential angst. Perhaps deeper engagement will be evidenced when the duo repeats the journey at Harvard Epworth Church tomorrow night. Last night, however, after the organ grinder put down his hurdy-gurdy, my eyes were dry and my throat lumpless.