Canadian bass-baritone Philippe Sly and pianist Michael McMahon performed Franz Schubert’s towering depiction of self pity, Die Winterreise, at today’s Music at Noon series of the Santa Fe Music Festival. The song cycle is as great a piece of vocal writing as anything by Mozart, Wagner, or Verdi. Of course, there’s a lot more to it than self pity. It depicts moral and emotional states common to all humanity.
It’s easy to understand what attracted the mortally ill composer to Wilhelm Müller’s poems. The protagonist who is nameless travels a solitary journey after being rejected in love. He does not encounter another person until the 24th, and final, song. This is the hurdy gurdy man who is old, poor, and also rejected such that the dogs growl at him. Both are without a future that contains anything but suffering.
The grim journey, which besides being solitary, is full of pain and pitiless nature; it mirrors Schubert’s state of poor health when he composed the work. It also intimates the failure of his home city to recognize his extraordinary gifts beyond song writing. His songs, of course, are the greatest ever written. But none of his symphonies was ever played by a professional orchestra during his life. The rest of his enormous instrumental accomplishment was only recognized well after his death. Schubert thought that Die Winterreise was the summit of his lieder – and he was right.
The cycle was written for the tenor voice, though it was first performed by a bass. The piano part is as important as is the vocal line. The piano paints the varied scenes of grim nature and desolate signs of human habitation albeit without any people. Today’s performers were equal to the task set by Schubert’s enthralling score.
Bass-baritone Sly, the voice of Schubert’s wanderer, was a grand prize winner of The Metropolitan Opera’s 2011 National Council Auditions. He has sung extensively throughout the world. Possessing a resonant and rich instrument which he uses with great sensitivity, he fully realized the succession of lonely scenes that constitute the cycles tale of woe without surcease. Despite his relative youth he has the comprehension to understand Schubert’s cry of despair at, at least a part, of the human condition. He also has the vigor and stamina needed to get through almost an hour and a half of constant singing at an always high level of emotional intensity.
Pianist McMahon is a very experienced accompanist who is especially adept at the songs of Schubert. He revealed every nuance depicted in this miraculous series of songs. If Die Winterreise comes your way with artists of the caliber today’s performers, don’t miss it. It is one of Western Art’s greatest accomplishments.