Winterreise, or Winter’s Journey, is one of Schubert’s two great song-cycles, along with Die schöne Müllerin (The Pretty Maid of the Mill). Both employ texts by Wilhelm Müller, a German poet whose dates are almost the same as Schubert’s: Müller lived from 1794 to 1827 and Schubert from 1797 to 1828. Schubert intended both song-cycles for tenor, and I myself think of Die schöne Müllerin as a tenor piece. (Growing up with a Fritz Wunderlich recording will do that to you.) But, like many others, I tend to think of Winterreise as a baritone or bass piece. (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Hans Hotter, among others, are the culprits.) Still, singers of all types have had a go at these cycles.
The strangest Winterreise—or the most unexpected one—I ever heard was from Christine Schäfer, the great German soprano. A light lyric soprano. She performed the cycle in New York in 2008, with the pianist Eric Schneider. “It was a bit shocking when Ms. Schäfer and Mr. Schneider started out the cycle,” I wrote in my review. “ ‘Gute Nacht’ came at us in D minor, instead of the customary C minor. And then there was that sound—the sound of a light lyric soprano. Piping. The ear took some moments to adjust.” But adjust it did, and Schäfer, with Schneider, delivered a memorable Winterreise.
Joyce DiDonato sang it in New York in mid-December. I wrote about this great American mezzo in my previous chronicle, for she had sung The Death of Cleopatra (Berlioz) in Carnegie Hall. “Most of us think of DiDonato as a Baroque and bel canto singer,” I wrote. “And we think of the Berlioz as calling for a big, rich, fat, plush mezzo voice.” Could DiDonato handle it? Oh, yes. And she could certainly handle Winterreise. She has spent most of her career in the Italian, French, and English languages, in my observation. But her skills naturally extend to German and its art songs.
Her pianist was Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who holds two of the most important conducting positions in the world: music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra and music director of the Metropolitan Opera. There is a long tradition of conductors at the piano, accompanying singers in recital (especially top singers). Furtwängler and Walter did it. So did Bernstein and Levine. Those second two pianists, however, were real pianists, so to speak. They were conductors who could have made their living as pianists. And it would be unfair not to count Christoph Eschenbach, who, before he turned to conducting, was one of the leading pianists in the world, particularly in Mozart and Haydn.
How about Maestro Nézet-Séguin? In Winterreise, he acquitted himself honorably.
The first song, “Gute Nacht,” went very, very poorly, in my judgment. Nézet-Séguin began mousily—failing to sing out. Worse, the song was filled with little ritards and hesitations, an unwanted rubato. Unwanted at least by me. I think of this song as unrelenting, if quietly so: a song with a steady pulse, a certain inexorability. On this occasion, the song was deprived of its momentum. And it felt way too long, almost exhausting.
The good news, however, was that the following twenty-three songs were much, much better. “Gute Nacht” was an—is “outlier” the word? I hear that a lot these days, especially in political discussion. “Gute Nacht” was the exception, put it that way.
This Winterreise included a touch of theater. Ms. DiDonato did some acting. She was sometimes seated at a table, sometimes not. She sometimes read from a book, sometimes not. They cannot leave Winterreise alone. I mean, people are feeling the need to dress it up somehow, instead of presenting it as a voice-and-piano piece. I discussed this issue in a review last summer, from the Salzburg Festival:
We live in a visual age. This extends to the world of song. mtv was founded way back in 1981. People are used to videos with their songs. In fact, the video may be the dominant thing.
Some years ago, Simon Keenlyside, the British baritone, participated in a choreographed Winterreise. A danced Winterreise. . . . This gave people something to look at, as well as listen to and ponder.
You can see stagings of Bach’s passions, too: the St. Matthew Passion, the St. John Passion.
Last night at the Salzburg Festival, in the Great Festival Hall, Matthias Goerne, the German baritone, and Markus Hinterhäuser, the Austrian pianist who doubles as the artistic director of the festival, performed Winterreise. They did so in a production—I believe that is the word—by William Kentridge, the South African artist.
In the words of publicity materials, Kentridge had “created a visual journey with videos (animation, collage, montage).” I said that, if you did not care for the visual, you could look away or close your eyes, as I often did that evening.
In Carnegie Hall—the site of her Winterreise with Maestro Nézet-Séguin—Joyce DiDonato sang very, very well. She was bold, unafraid, not treating the cycle as some holy, precious thing. There was flesh and blood in this music, and in this poetry. DiDonato blurred the distinction between song and opera—a blurring I, for one, did not mind at all. She was emotional, heart on sleeve. She made me think that others need to be more overt, less contained, in this cycle. Subtlety and intimation are fine, and desirable, and necessary. DiDonato by no means neglected those. But there is raw emotion here too, dammit.
DiDonato sang with a dark voice, suitable for a winter’s journey. And I was reminded of something: People like me are always going on about this singer’s intelligence and musicality, and her extraordinary technique. But let’s not forget the voice! It is a beautiful, wonderful one. Years ago, I asked Marilyn Horne about her fellow mezzo immortal, Christa Ludwig. What made her great? I thought Horne might say something about culture, or teaching, or psychology. Maybe even something about the war. Instead, she said, “Great voice!” There was more to it than that, but, yes, let’s not forget that one.
At the piano, Nézet-Séguin was never without competence. But I think he may have committed the error of reticence. I often wanted him to sing out more, and not just at the beginning of “Gute Nacht.” Relatedly, his piano—his soft playing—was often more sotto voce than genuinely piano. A piano in Carnegie Hall must sing out, or communicate itself, in that large space. Still, Nézet-Séguin was an able partner, and this was an effective Winterreise. “They skinned their cat,” I wrote in my notes. There are other ways to perform Winterreise—several—but theirs did the job. At the end, Ms. DiDonato appeared overcome with emotion.
In 2014, I interviewed Christa Ludwig and asked her what singers she admired—singers of today. (By the way, Ludwig recorded Winterreise with Levine, and Brahms songs with Bernstein.) She gave me three names: Anja Harteros, the German soprano; Joyce DiDonato; and Piotr Beczala, the Polish tenor. To name a fellow mezzo—I thought this was especially meaningful.
One more word, about the Winterreise in Carnegie Hall: Throughout, cellphones went off. These phones have been in common use for something like twenty-five years now. I don’t know why it isn’t automatic, at this point, for people to turn them off or mute them in venues such as concert halls. It should really be second nature, as we begin the third decade of the twenty-first century.
At the 92nd Street Y, the McGill/McHale Trio performed. Two names for three players? Yes. Two of the players are Demarre McGill, flute, and Anthony McGill, clarinet. They are brothers. The flutist is the principal of the Seattle Symphony and the clarinetist is the principal of the New York Philharmonic (formerly a principal of the Metropolitan Opera). The “McHale” in the trio is Michael McHale, a pianist from Northern Ireland. They played a program of eight pieces and seven composers. Four of those composers are living.
The program began with A Fish Will Rise, by Chris Rogerson, an American born in 1988. His title comes from A River Runs Through It, the 1976 novella by Norman Maclean, which became a hit movie in 1992. The music is fishy indeed. I thought of other such music, most famously “Die Forelle” (“The Trout”), Schubert’s song, which he inserted into his “Trout” Quintet. There is also “Poissons d’or” (“Goldfish”) from Book II of Debussy’s Images. After some flitting around, Rogerson’s piece gets calm and folk-like—and very American.
Later in the concert came For Anton Vishio, by Tyshawn Sorey, another American, born in 1980. A note in our program said, “It is too limiting to describe Tyshawn Sorey as a composer of contemporary classical music, or as a jazz drummer and bandleader, so we can take a cue from his 2017 MacArthur Fellowship and simply call him a genius.” The note did not identify Anton Vishio, but some Googling revealed that he is a former teacher of the composer’s. What a beautiful thing, when a student pays tribute to a teacher. Before the piece began, Demarre McGill addressed remarks to the audience, concluding with “Remember: beauty lies in patience.” That was a little mysterious. (Maybe a little ominous, too.)
The piece consists of simple, sustained chords, atonal. I found these piercing and unpleasant. In due course, there is some tinkling on the piano, a bit New Agey. I myself lacked patience for the work. I found it an endurance test, to an end I could not perceive. According to our program, the piece takes twelve minutes. To me, it felt almost as long as Götterdämmerung. I am perfectly willing to concede—as I sometimes say, reviewing new music—that the fault lay in me rather than the piece.
Afterward, the trio played Techno-Parade, a quick, quirky work by Guillaume Connesson, a Frenchman born in 1970. It is based on techno music. It also has some rock, jazz, and blues, I think. It is a perpetual-motion whirl. Michael McHale, the pianist, was good at repeated notes. He also stuck a hairbrush into the strings of his instrument for a while. The final work on the program was by Paul Schoenfeld, an American born in 1947, who now teaches at the University of Michigan. This was a sonatina, in three movements: “Charleston,” “Hunter Rag,” and “Jig.” There are suggestions of those styles—but only suggestions—in the respective movements. This is a clever, charming work. As the flute played in the jig movement, you could not help thinking of the starry Irish flutist, Jimmy Galway, a.k.a. Sir James.
About our two woodwind players, the McGill brothers, let me make a general remark: They spend most of their lives sitting in orchestras. When they stand—as they did in this concert—they can really sway and otherwise move. They reminded me a little of Matthias Goerne, the German baritone, who is often up on his toes and otherwise moving. Whatever gets the breath through, I would say, is what you have to do.
Demarre McGill, on the first half of the program, played the Poulenc Flute Sonata. (He did so with McHale, I should say.) Poulenc completed this work in 1957, a year after completing his great opera, The Dialogues of the Carmelites. You hear a little of The Dialogues in the slow movement of his sonata, marked “Cantilena: Assez lent.” The last movement is marked “Presto giocoso,” and McGill, with McHale, played it just this way. It was speedy, playful, and joyful. He is an accomplished technician and musician, Demarre McGill.
The trio—all three of them—played an arrangement of a Dvořák Slavonic Dance: the famous one in G minor, Op. 46, No. 8. It really swung, in a Bohemian way. And the middle section was lovely. That was a highlight of the program, but the peak, in my estimation, came when Anthony McGill turned to the Poulenc Clarinet Sonata.
He was at his best, which is considerable. He showed utter command: technical, tonal, and musical. He had all the refinement and savoir-faire that the piece requires. He evinced the right spirit, or spirits. All the colors were on display. McGill’s flutter at the end of the first movement made an almost physical impression, I would contend. The middle movement—a kind of song—was played with due strength, not wispily. And the final movement was the right kind of slick.
The trio played an encore, an Irish song arranged by Michael McHale. I’m afraid I’m not sure which one. But it was beautiful, in its arrangement and performance. Incidentally, a flute-clarinet-piano trio is a good idea, a good combo.
At the Metropolitan Opera, they revived The Queen of Spades, also known as Pique Dame, in the 1995 production of Elijah Moshinsky. This is a fitting production—in harmony with the story, libretto, and score (imagine that). The Queen of Spades is Tchaikovsky’s No. 2 opera, at least in the United States, behind Eugene Onegin. In Russia, however, it is No. 1, or at least tied with Onegin. This is what Mariss Jansons was saying in an interview that took place in the summer of 2018. He was conducting The Queen of Spades at the Salzburg Festival, and I was talking with him about it, and other matters, before an audience. He said that he himself preferred The Queen of Spades to Onegin. Indeed, he counted The Queen of Spades among the ten greatest operas.
I wrote at the time, “I don’t have this view, at all, but so great is my respect for Jansons, I will have to reconsider the issue.” (Mariss Jansons, the great Latvian conductor, died on December 1, 2019.)
On the night I went to the Met, the company delivered a superb performance of The Queen of Spades. It was “one of those nights at the opera,” as Martin Bernheimer—the late, great critic—would say. It began in the pit, with the conductor, Vasily Petrenko. He is not to be confused with Kirill Petrenko, who heads the Berlin Philharmonic and the Bavarian State Opera. Vasily leads the orchestras in Liverpool and Oslo. You can’t tell the Petrenkos without a scorecard. (Mikhail Petrenko is a prominent bass.) Kirill is the more celebrated Petrenko, but, judging from this Queen of Spades, Vasily is his equal. The maestro conducted with fluidity, understanding, and energy. There was “energy in the executive,” as well as intelligence and artistry. The orchestra was at its best, playing with great virtuosity and conviction. The Queen of Spades can sometimes resemble a clarinet concerto. Anton Rist rose to the occasion. Also standing out was the bass clarinet, Dean LeBlanc, whom Tchaikovsky gives plenty to do. Jerry Grossman provided a soulful Russian cello.
The singers were first-rate, in roles large and small. Yusif Eyvazov was Hermann. He is an Azerbaijani tenor (and the husband of Anna Netrebko, the superstar soprano). In the middle and lower registers, he sang with a peculiar timbre: not off-putting, but nasal and unconventional. When he went high and loud, he was ringing and fantastic. Igor Golovatenko was Prince Yeletsky, singing his aria handsomely. Golovatenko is a Russian baritone, and I hope I was not too sentimental in thinking of another one, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who died two years ago.
By the way, Hermann is a psychotic, manipulative, suicidal, semi-murderous mess. Yeletsky is a prince, literally and figuratively. Why does Lisa want to discard the prince for the mess? This has always struck me as a grave flaw of the opera.
The Countess is traditionally played by a well-known singer in her late, or very late, years. It was in this role that Elisabeth Söderström, the Swedish soprano, gave her last performance. She bade farewell at the Met in 1999, when she was seventy-one. I felt privileged to be there, as it was the only time I saw Söderström in the flesh. This season, the Countess was Larissa Diadkova, the Russian mezzo, who is merely in her mid-sixties. She summoned admirable operatic wiles.
I should mention several other members of the cast—plus the chorus—but must tell you about the Lisa, before coming to the end. She was another Lisa, in a way: Lise Davidsen, a Norwegian soprano. The voice is huge and lyric—a rare, wondrous combination. I thought of Deborah Voigt, and also of Ghena Dimitrova, but Davidsen is her own woman. A phenomenal addition to the operatic scene.
With apologies to Maestro Jansons, I do not consider The Queen of Spades equal to Eugene Onegin, much less superior to it. But Onegin is almost a singular masterpiece. And I have never esteemed The Queen of Spades more than when leaving the Metropolitan Opera on this particular, and marvelous, night.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 6, on page 65
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