While much of Boston was setting out the hors d’oeuvres for Super Bowl parties, a crowd packed into the parish hall at Emmanuel Church late Sunday afternoon to witness a more intimate kind of matchup. This one also lasted for about 60 minutes, but without any timeouts or halftime. It did not require protective clothing, but demanded no less stamina, conditioning, or psychological preparation. There were only two participants: tenor Frank Kelley and pianist Russell Sherman. Both were in fighting trim for the occasion, a robust and sensitive performance of Franz Schubert’s complete song cycle “Die schone Mullerin’’ (“The Fair Maid of the Mill’’).
This was Schubert’s first song cycle, completed in 1823. For the texts he used 20 poems by Wilhelm Muller. Although each poem (and each song) can be understood and appreciated separately, they form a narrative that follows a young miller’s romantic love for a girl. Beginning with joyful infatuation, the poems progress to reciprocal affection, jealousy over a successful rival, and finally despair and suicide.
“Die schone Mullerin’’ is composed for tenor, but has often been performed by baritones. Kelley has a marvelous pure tenor instrument, which he used on Sunday with expressive subtlety and refinement. His voice is not large, and he was careful not to push the volume at dramatic moments. As was appropriate for the folksy style of the texts, he used very little vibrato. The tessitura of the songs lies mainly in one octave from G to G, the heart of Kelley’s range, where his voice glides seamlessly from top to bottom.
Kelley avoided interpretative extremes when singing the interpolated dialogues between the miller and other characters. In “After Work,’’ his voice clearly assumed the character of a boss dismissing his workers, but without altering the natural continuity and balance. In “The Questioner,’’ he interrogated the brook with a lovely sense of conversational contemplation. Most importantly, he navigated the hero’s dramatic transformation from happiness to bitter heartbreak, especially in “The Miller and the Brook,’’ a melancholy song in slow waltz time that precedes his drowning.
Kelley could not have asked for a more sensitive and scrupulous partner than legendary pianist Sherman. Schubert had an uncanny sense of how to accompany the human voice without ever overwhelming it. For him, the text was paramount. Sherman executed Schubert’s intentions with the natural artistry of a poet.