As I drove from one concert to another early Sunday evening, I thought to myself (or would have, if I were a German with perfect recall of Wilhelm Muller's poetry) that "nun ist die Welt so trube, Der Weg gehult in Schnee" -- "Now the world is so bleak, the path covered in snow."
Which is to say, the perfect way to travel to a performance of Schubert's "Winterreise," since those lines are in the first verse of the first song of this darkly beautiful cycle. That there was still some snow, along with sleet, falling on the way home was the, um, icing on the cake.
The nature-imitating-art business was secondary, needless to say. What counted was the musical experience, and that was sublime. Presented by the Shriver Hall Concert Series, Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley and English pianist Julius Drake delved into "Winterreise" with masterful aim, getting straight to the troubled heart of this hour-long internal drama.
Schubert found a deep connection to Muller's poetic account of a spurned lover who sets out on a wintry journey, depressed, bitter, possibly suicidal. Without turning morbid or maudlin, the words conjure up everything that hurts when we lose what is most dear or promising to us. Schubert's setting of those words is perfect in every way, never emotionally over the top, yet extraordinarily moving.
The last of the 24 songs, with its startling imagery of a barefoot organ-grinder staggering on the ice as he spins the handle, oblivious to snarling dogs and his ever-empty cup -- well, it doesn't get more chilling than this.
It takes rare vocal skill and interpretive insight to bring out all of this, to make an audience see such powerful imagery, to feel the emotional weight of each step and sigh of "Winterreise." Finley, a singer equally acclaimed in opera houses and recital halls, achieved those results in this concert.
His warm tone, smooth and rounded through all registers, filled out melodic lines beautifully. His phrasing included shifts of color and dynamics, nowhere more compellingly than in "Fruhlingstraum," where each mood swing was superbly conveyed -- "lived" would be a better word. Drake was just as marvelous in that song; his playing in the final measures communicated as richly as the text that came before.
There were many other standout moments, such as the suspenseful silence before the last verse in "Auf dem Flusse" and the exquisite, spacious shaping of "Die Nebensonnen." But this was an all-of-a-piece performance, each note contributing to the seamless, eloquent whole.
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