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Capturing a jilted lover’s anguish

The temperature Monday climbed unseasonably toward 100, turning the steel cladding of Walt Disney Concert Hall into a heat shield. The air outside was still balmy when Matthias Goerne and Alfred Brendel affectingly performed Schubert’s “Winterreisse” (Winter Journey) inside.

But this melancholy song cycle knows no seasons. Or, more accurately, it knows only one. “Winterreisse” paints the bleak season of rejection, the time when the angry crushed heart sees every landscape as cold, desolate and hostile and hears every key as minor.

The 24 poems by Wilhelm Muller that Schubert set to stark melodies represent the psychological weathervane of a jilted lover. He’s devastated, he’s furious, he’s suicidal. Nothing consoles. The dream of spring flowers and happy love is but cruel deception. The appearance of a mail coach that could carry love letters increases his pulse before it falters as reality sets in. At the end, the sorrowful lover spots a pitiful hurdy-gurdy man. With fingers numb from the cold, shoeless in the snow, this sad musician drones on. He’s playing our lover’s song.

An aura surrounds “Winterreisse.” It’s not just a representation of romantic anguish but a Romantic-era embodiment of the pain of existence. The aura is further enhanced by the fact that this is the poetry and music of young men near the end of their short lives (both artists died in their early 30s). Muller never lived to hear Schubert’s settings, and the songs are among Schubert’s last and most accomplished.

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The cycle is, thus, a summit for a singer of art song. The piano accompaniments may not be technically demanding, but major pianists are drawn to the directness of expression. At his prime, the famed baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sang “Winterreisse” with the likes of Murray Perahia, Maurizio Pollini and Brendel.

Goerne and Brendel bring distinct personalities to these songs. The German baritone has a dark, rich sound and is an outgoing singer. Looming large on the Disney stage, he looked properly haunted and emotionally shellshocked (he’s a gifted actor in opera). His large eyes have the contradictory qualities of appearing both bulging and hollow (almost as if he were a character drawn for the “Doonesbury” comic strip).

Yet Goerne’s physical manner of singing was broad. He typically began each phrase like a pitcher winding up, throwing his body into it. He then typically turned his body 180 degrees before reaching the phrase’s end, in an evident attempt to directly communicate with as many as he could in an audience that surrounded him. But what he communicated was meant to be noncommunication, the sense of a poet lost in his own misery.

Brendel, on the other hand, is a less demonstrative player. His tone is round, full and beautiful; he doesn’t fuss. He supplied the stillness that allowed Goerne room for agitation. But on this occasion, the agitation got just a bit too generalized. Disney was not built for intimate singing, and Goerne’s understandable reaction to being in the center of an audience was to move toward expansiveness.

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I happened to be seated relatively far from the stage and did not feel left out. But this effusive vocal and dramatic projection was at the expense of the small details that can make this song cycle feel so personal. Those details are better heard on an engrossing new recording of Goerne and Brendel performing “Winterreisse” live in London’s intimate Wigmore Hall.

In Disney, the effect was more like powerful Greek tragedy. That may not be exactly what Schubert intended, but it proved shattering nonetheless.


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