Recital Review



The Price of Great Art: Schubert's Winterreise at HCCMF

November 25, 2005 - Highlands, NC:


The day after Thanksgiving, the Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival offered up a rare off-season program featuring Artistic Director William Ransom, piano, and bass Daniel Cole. The sun was brilliant but there was snow on the ground, and the usual tranquil drive along mountain passes and grades was abruptly altered by post-Thanksgiving traffic in the streets of the modest mountain village. While observing from a sidewalk café it doesn't take a great leap to realize it is less modest than it once was.... Imagine the East's version of Aspen – expensive anorexic women in exotic cars with wealthy, powerful male companions; stores with trendy fare and buffo names; and under every rock is a real estate deal too good to pass up – if you have anywhere from $600K to $5M in discretionary assets. But who's counting?

The program was Franz Peter Schubert's Winterreise (Winter Journey), D.911, twenty-four songs with texts by Wilhelm Müller. We should say this is the second song cycle Schubert wrote, and some say it is his finest. The text is a hybrid of two Müller works. The first, a group of twelve poems, was quickly set for baritone and piano in early 1827. During the following summer Schubert discovered twelve more poems, so he wrote twelve more songs and combined both groups. The result slightly altered the poet's original order.

Ahem. "It was a dark and stormy night."

This thing is all about mood, and here we have somebody's seratonin re-uptake valve locked down and completely closed in the dead of solstice. It is said that the bleakness and dark mood of this material alarmed early listeners. Now, one hundred and seventy eight years later, I too am alarmed. The music itself has a tremendous chamber intimacy, and Schubert's polyphonic skills, sense of lyricism, leitmotiven, and command of harmony are in full bloom. But, oy! This thing makes such a headache!

"It was a stark and dormy night."

Winterreise is not a traditional story. It wants to be a small opera, but it doesn't quite fit the bill. It has no plot, no development, no main action, and no particular conclusion unless you are a fatalist. The central figure has no name, but we grasp that he has been rejected in love and is now on a solitary winter journey that ranks close to being one of the all time king-hell bummers you can imagine. Invite six friends over for an evening of wine and nice-nice. Serve them something relaxing along with a translation of this text and see how quickly you fall off their holiday card list. Really ugly weather, frozen falling tears, love and longing, cold and blowing, tears and numbness, Linden trees, lost hope, barking dogs, clouds and streams, deception, depressions, delusion, few victories, but mostly cold and ice – toward the grave.

"Every stream finds the sea. Every sorrow finds its grave."

As if to underscore the solitary nature of this journey, the traveler encounters almost no other living creatures except for a crow wheeling overhead, distant dogs barking in a village he passes, and a hurdy-gurdy man in the last song. Soon we realize that there can be no release for this traveler: he is doomed to continue his lonely, icy journey.

The program started at 5:15 p.m., and we were plunged into darkness along with the icy character and two musicians. Ransom and Cole presented this recital after just two rehearsals, which is highly professional prep considering the material. Ransom's accompaniments reflected highly defined and impeccable phrasing. Cole easily followed or led, as the mood called, alternating between chest and head voice as required. Schubert was a tenor but he wrote this for baritone, and a bass sang it. No doubt some adjustments were made. The pair filled the Martin-Lipscomb Performing Arts Center with a wide dynamic and rich, colorful inflections of tone to enrich the texts and mirror the environment outdoors. It is nearly winter, after all, and Highlands is not exactly Charleston. I thought about the snow outside as much as the story itself. Cole occasionally reflected text pathos with a facial expression right out of the existential painting Scream.

At this point there is little more to add.... Most enduring creative works are great but some have survived for reasons not always obvious. Josef von Spaun recounts the composer's remarks about Winterreise to his close friends. "I like them more than any of my other songs, and some day you will like them too." Well, he's right, certainly, but the cost is high, and if you are even remotely suggestible, take a fistful of Prozac along to the next recital of Winterreise.

Great art. Huge bummer.

Waiter, check!