|Äneas Humm, Brian Zeger, James Ley, Erik van Heyningen, and William Socolof|
Last night at Alice Tully Hall, The Juilliard School Vocal Arts Department delighted us with an evening of Schubert. As far as we are concerned, no composer has equalled Schubert's output of songs; the master, in his sadly truncated life, produced over 600 songs (all of which were presented a few years ago, over the course of a year, by pianist Lachlan Glen).
When we ask what made Schubert great, it was not only his preternatural compositional skills, but his wise choice of text. The German language has a special rhythm and cadence to it and Schubert's poets created works that rhymed and scanned. This text inspired memorable melodies; indeed we have yet to walk out of a lieder recital without humming one of Schubert's terrific tunes. This is what makes music "popular" and the reason why most contemporary vocal compositions, relying as they do on lengthy abstruse prose, is so consistently forgettable.
In a talk Saturday night at the Brooklyn Public Library, Michael Brofman, Artistic Director and Founder of the Brooklyn Art Song Society, chose Schubert's "Im Frühling" as one of his two favorite songs and played a couple verses for the gathered masses. Heads bobbed and bodies swayed; one didn't even have to understand the language to get "the feels". It was this very song that opened last night's Juilliard Songfest.
Äneas Humm is a young singer who has impressed us since his American debut with the German Forum a few years ago. He identifies as a baritone but we and our operatic companion agree that his sound has a tenorial quality--light, lyrical, and sweet. Of Swiss background, his German is naturally flawless and his delivery is filled with dramatic import. He wears each song like a fine bespoke suit. We loved the graceful crescendo on the word "hell" and the prolonged "ihr". The change to minor mode was heartbreaking.
The text of the four songs which prefaced the main event of the evening were all written by Ernst Schulze, a contemporary of Schubert; he grew up motherless and fell in love with a young woman who died of tuberculosis, an illness which claimed his own life shortly thereafter. His texts are melancholy and seem focused on loss of love, just as does Wilhelm Müller's text for Winterreise. The programming seemed appropriate since the concert was dedicated to the memory of the recently deceased and deeply mourned Sanford Sylvan. It was a fitting tribute.
Bass-baritone William Socolof employed his deeply resonant bass-baritone for "Der liebliche Stern" in which the poet sees his lost love as a star in the sky which he cannot reach; but perhaps the reflection in the water below can be reached by drowning himself; at least that is how we interpret the text. Mr. Socolof has a most interesting texture at the bottom of his register and took us straight to the depths.
Bass-baritone Erik van Heyningen has a different tonal quality that was well-suited to "An mein Herz" in which the poet recommends brave endurance in the face of grief and an indifferent universe. The beating of the heart was clearly conveyed by collaborative pianist Brian Zeger, whose incomparable artistry at accompaniment was well deserved by the four singers.
Mr. Zeger's piano was especially fine conveying all the images of nature in "Im Walde", performed by tenor James Ley who succeeded in connecting with the audience whilst holding the score, no mean feat. Mr. Ley's tenor manages to be both sweet and powerful at the same time; the restlessness of the text and the music let us know that this wanderer will never find rest.
The major part of the program was Winterreise, one of our favorite song cycles. It too is relentless in its melancholy but the grief is punctuated by anger, bitterness, sarcasm, and occasional false hope. Although the poet is not explicit about the backstory, it seems obvious that the poet found love with a young woman and intended marriage. For unknown reasons, the plan failed to come to fruition and the once-friendly town now appears as rejecting as his former sweetheart. He goes on a journey through a cold and forbidding landscape, yearning for a bed in the cemetery. Every natural element reinforces his depression and symbolizes an element in his psychology. Scholars cannot agree on whether the "leiermann" playing his hurdy-gurdy at the end of the cycle symbolizes Death.
Some critics find the cycle rather over-cooked and histrionic. We see it as an exemplar of German Romanticism. Is it relevant today? Just ask a young person how he feels after a romantic rejection. Some will say "whatever" and move on. Others of a more sensitive nature may slip into depression and contemplate suicide. The lucky ones will receive psychopharmacological relief but others will succeed in self destruction.
We long ago lost count of how many times we have thrilled to this cycle. There have been only two failures, in our eyes and ears. One performance employed a modern dance company which distracted from the singing; another was presented by a scholar of sub-minimum vocal gifts who wanted to rearrange the songs to suit Müller's original ordering.
So, although we are less than enthusiastic about tinkering with this masterpiece, last night's tinkering was interesting and not offensive. Parcelling out the two dozen songs among the four young artists was an original idea and served to emphasize the "Everyman" aspect of the story. John Giampietro's dramatic consultation was probably responsible for the staging, with each of the four artists sitting on his own piano bench; each seemed lonely, depressed, and isolated, lost in his own misery. Eye contact was avoided.
Some songs were shared by two singers and the final "Der Leiermann" involved all four in a quartet of despair. Keys were changed to accommodate each singer's fach. Holding it all together was Mr. Zeger's piano, unfailingly supportive of each singer. We loved the rippling figures in "Erstarrung",so beautifully sung by Mr. Ley who created a lovely messa di voce in "Die Krähe".
Mr. van Heyningen excelled in "Der Wegweiser" which has many relentlessly repeated notes which he made interesting by maintaining a long uninterrupted line. He was powerful and fierce in "Mut". In "Wasserflut" he seemed to bend the notes to suit the text.
Mr. Humm, who excels at the upper end of his register, successfully negotiated the low tessitura of "Der Lindenbaum", our favorite song of the cycle. Our second favorite song is "Frühlingstraum" in which his dramatic gifts permitted a shift from the false hope of the dreamer to the disillusionment of wakefulness.
The rhythmic "Die Post" was shared by Mr. van Heyningen and Mr. Socolof and the two different bass-baritones played well off one another whilst Mr. Zeger's piano introduced the horses hooves and the poet's pounding heart. Mr. Socolof also made much of the short clipped phrases of "Der stürmische Morgen" and the varied dynamics of the opening "Gute Nacht".
German diction was exemplary all around and for this we credit Marianne Barrett who coached. Start to finish it was a revelation. We may never hear Winterreise sung like this again and feel grateful for the experience.
(c) meche kroop