Sharing Schubert’s music among friends at a tavern: has anything changed since the 1820s? Granted, the Aeronaut Brewery of Somerville had no upstairs chamber to which the composer and his close friend Schober might have afterwards repaired, but the industrial venue for Pindrop’s lively sessions compensated Sunday with a couple of dozen taps disgorging heady brews and seating (comfortable enough for an hour) for nearly 100. The gleaming tanks and assorted snakes of plumbing ceased their gurglings through tenor Frank Kelley’s and pianist Joshua Rifkin’s traversal of Die schöne Müllerin, and yes, after assaulting the bar, the mixed-age crowd carefully put down those beverages and attended to the soulful music and poetic journey with silent and pleasantly relaxed rapture.
Musicologist, sometime BMInt writer and chief musical Aeronaut Jason McCool welcomed us with charmingly manic delivery to the 13th in his series of collaborations with the brewery and WGBH. Last year we heard nothing less than Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony there. This time, to accommodate the evening’s pianist, Boston University had supported the costs of renting a 7-foot Steinway B, which sat on an orientalish rug against a wall draped in black velvet. Above the drapery someone had clipped half-a dozen floodlights which did a good job of illuminating the backs of the performers heads and glaring in our eyes. From our front-row-center perch, we could not read the vanishingly small texts on either of two screens—one extreme stage right and the other behind us.
Rifkin made his entrance in a tweedy sports coat with open-neck shirt and commenced the moderately fast (as indicated) introduction to the first song, “Das Wandern.” His mostly considerate dynamics and even-tempo’d pianistry (a bit rubatorein for these ears, perhaps) rarely fought with the singer’s apparent intentions, though Rifkin seemed to slow the singer’s desired pace in the ziemlich geschwind No. 5, “Am Feierabend” and No, 7, the etwas geschwind “Ungeduld.” The rushed tempo he set for the profound closing song Des Baches Wiegenlied (marked mäßig or moderate), robbed it of its consoling lullaby character. “Rest well, close your eyes, you weary one, you are at home,” the brook tells the wanderer, “…the heaven above, how vast it is.”
Frank Kelley’s deep engagement with Schubert’s wanderer began some decades ago with a graduate school recital and has continued through the decades of his performing life. What you see is what you get now as he inhabits this role: a slightly emaciated, agonized, if occasionally hopeful seeker in slim back pants and a zippered black sweater. No score separated him from us. He directly conversed with us, making of the tale something as personal as a Dylan Thomas reading. His wealth of unforced colors ran evenly across his range, and his rolled Rs and German plosives really told. He did as he pleased with his distinctive instrument to advance the plot and draw us into the score, in some ways seeming almost indifferent to the tones he projected. Instead of a singer’s narcissism we got the romantic longings, the pleadings of a bereft soul, the anger and jealousy, the imagined triumphs, the decent into the abyss of crazy loneliness and the final repose. No one could have asked for more.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer