‘Come to Schober’s today; I shall sing you a cycle of frightening songs.”
That was how Franz Schubert introduced a friend to “Die Winterreise” (“The Winter Journey”), a set of 24 songs on poems by Wilhelm Müller about a spurned lover wandering through a harsh, frozen landscape that mirrors the desolation in his heart.
These songs have not grown any less frightening with time. “Die Winterreise” is a kind of Stations of the Cross; no other cycle has its unrelieved progression through isolation and dejection. As the great baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau once wrote of its nameless protagonist: “Regret and renunciation are his themes. Dreams are the lover’s torture. The battle with his emotions is long and despairing.”
Performances of “Die Winterreise” are frequent, but for them to succeed requires more than just channeling its gloomy aura. Performers must balance commitment to and control of its emotional content, without ever crossing the line into melodrama. That was what baritone Gerald Finley and pianist Julius Drake accomplished so brilliantly at Friday’s Celebrity Series recital. Their performance was poignant and eloquent yet never lost its poise or attention to detail.
Finley’s voice is gorgeous, dark, and full of color, but it was the expressivity of his singing, the way he could build through a phrase and then suddenly pull back at the end, that made it so moving. The ache in his voice during “Der greise Kopf” was subtle yet unmistakable. Equal credit, though, should go to Drake, one of the world’s great vocal accompanists. Schubert’s piano writing depicts the natural setting, and Drake unerringly captured its barking dogs, rustling leaves, and endless flow of tears.
One of the keys to their success was how completely the
piano carried the songs’ moods — the danger lurking below the surface in “Auf dem Flusse,” the breathless rush of “Rückblick” — thus allowing Finley a modicum of reserve. When the outbursts came — in “Der Lindenbaum” or “Der Frühlingstraum” — they were terrifying.
There was also a sense of the cycle as a real journey. You could sense the moment, during “Letzte Hoffnung” (“Last Hope“) where the poor fellow begins to lose his grip on reality. From that point on the performance took on a hallucinatory sense of detachment. Finley’s voice seemed weighed down with the effort of getting from one note to the next. In the last song, “Der Leiermann,” he encounters a hurdy-gurdy man, forgotten by society. Here are two outcasts, their souls in tatters. Finley sang it in something a shade louder than a whisper, barely pronouncing the words while the piano droned numbly behind him.
After this unblinking glimpse into the abyss, the storm of applause that followed seemed almost improper. Perhaps, as Fischer-Dieskau wondered, this music is simply too painful for public performance. Maybe silence would have been the only fitting tribute to the powerful experience Finley and Drake provided.