IN: Reviews

A Winter Journey Without Tears


Georg Lehner (file photo)
Georg Lehner (file photo)

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.

Victor Rosenbaum (file photo)
Victor Rosenbaum (file photo)

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.

See another recently subsequent Winterreise review here.

 Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer.


5 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. They ask too much for a Lieder performance, even though the genre is rare here in town.

    I ended up listening to Brahms Lieders at home. I wanted to listen to female voice for some reason. The two female versions of Winterreise that I own have been disappointment for me, even though I love so much of Ludwig and Fassbaender. So I had to change the program.

    Comment by Thorsten — February 1, 2014 at 11:06 pm

  2. What a very, very interesting review. It’s very useful to be reminded that “pleasant” is not enough — as we are more at risk of losing our own capacity for engagement than we recognize. We turn to high art (your phrase) to be replenished. In a sense, you are reminding us not to give up on some kind of real communion. In the visual realm, there are lovely folkloric arts and crafts — and then, there is Duccio. So you are not afraid to affirm the category of “high art” and mark it off as a distinctive existential source. Which is problematic, of course, but forces us to think. Thank you.

    Comment by Ashley — February 2, 2014 at 7:08 am

  3. I was unfortunately not able to attend this concert, so I cannot comment on the performance itself. There is nothing wrong with transposing Schubert- there is ample precedent for this.
    I am, however, very happy to see Winterreise performed in its entirety in Boston. Performances of Lieder have become far too few here, and I hope Mr. Lehner’s recital will provide enough impetus to see the great treasury of Lieder opened with much more frequency.

    Comment by Ian Pomerantz — February 2, 2014 at 5:16 pm

  4. Another Winterreise performance is forthcoming–Gerald Finley’s with Julius Drake, on Feb 7 for the Celebrity Series.

    And Ian, you have misunderstood what I wrote about transpositions. I did not inveigh against them at all (note that I cited a bass baritone and a tenor among my favorites), rather I suggested methods for mitigating the muddiness in downward ones.

    And I have sung the cycle or parts of it many times for friends (before they heard me) in downward transpositions of a fourth.

    Read Gerald Moore in “Am I Too Loud” on the subject

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — February 2, 2014 at 6:00 pm

  5. The question of transposition is an interesting one. Schubert himself was clearly okay with the idea, given that he wrote Die schöne Müllerin for the Baron von Schönstein and performed many of his songs with Michael Vogl. Both were baritones, neither would have sung the songs in the original keys (in fact, an edition of the Vogl performing edition shows all kinds of interesting choices that would horrify us in this modern literalist age). However, taking the songs down does present some challenges. The piano writing shifted to the bottom register of a Steinway grand gets really rumbly and loud. It takes a soft touch to play the low key transpositions without having the sound drown in its own muck — Gerald Moore with Hans Hotter and James Levine with Thomas Quasthoff at Symphony Hall a few years back are two models of clarity, specificity, and detail.

    In Schubert’s hand written transposition of “Des Müllers Blumen” for Schönstein, he writes in the margin that the piano part can be taken up an octave, if you wish. Makes for quite an interesting effect if you do it in the dream sequence strophe, and it’s interesting that that doesn’t get done more often.

    There’s also the question, if you do a cycle, of whether you take all the songs an equal distance down from the original keys or not. What bugs me about some of the bass-baritone arrangements is that they all get taken down to a comfortable key (so sometimes Winterreise songs are taken down a fourth, but “Der Lindenbaum” might be sung in the original key. I realize that taking everything down a whole step makes for some songs that sit very awkwardly on the keys (“Das Wandern” in A-flat is strange, and a batch of Winterreise songs go to D-flat). But I respect Schubert’s choices of relative tone colors based on where the songs sit in a singer’s range (high songs should sound high, low songs should sound low, and if it’s really rangy for a tenor, it should sound really rangy for a baritone or a bass-bari.

    And I don’t think it’s too much to ask the impossible of a Lieder performance, or to go to Lieder performances knowing they won’t be perfection. Listening to art songs only on recordings is a surefire way to make sure the art dies, and feedback is the only way to aspire for something better.

    Comment by James C.S. Liu — February 8, 2014 at 1:25 pm

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