To conclude l'Orchestre symphonique de Montréal’s Schubert Festival, two late works made up the program. To begin, Winterreise (Winter Journey): the first 12 poems by Wilhem Müller. Likely due to time constraints, only 50% of the 24-poem cycle was presented. For those familiar with the whole, getting half a loaf is disappointing indeed.
Tenor Ian Bostridge soared through the songs, displaying a liquid-gold top range (Wasserflut/Flood of Water), a deeply felt sense of weariness (Rast/Rest) and a balance with whimsical delivery (Frülingstraum/A Dream of Springtime)—on the coldest night of the year, the warmth of the words and melodies was especially welcome.
Pianist Angela Hewitt was a most sympathetic accompanist, providing lyric-underscoring textures and tones (wet/dry in Gefrone Tränen/Frozen Tears), along with the Sturm and Drang required for Rückblick/Backward Glance).
The ensemble was not quite in sync. Bostridge has a penchant—similar to some of the notions of the text—for wandering the stage: forward and back, gripping the piano as if it was an oasis of calm in the stormy seas of love. Hewitt did her best to follow what were at times, merry chases. A more stand-and-deliver approach would likely improve the cohesion and leave the theatrics (replete unbuttoning his jacket to dramatize the “weary” effect) for the “opera based upon” should it ever appear.
After intermission, Music Director Kent Nagano led a performance of Schubert’s mighty C major symphony. The first movement had a somewhat perfunctory start from the solo French horn alongside close, but seldom razor-sharp ensemble. Nagano frequently favours his left hand over the baton-holding right, adding welcome phrasing but making it a challenge for his charges to agree from the varying points of (literally) just where the downbeat is. The unwritten accelerando into the Allegro, ma non troppo reared its unwanted head, providing a sense of excitement, but thwarting the intention of letting the dotted quarter and eighth, magically morph into dotted eighth and sixteenth with nary a change in pulse.
In many ways, the Andante con moto was the highlight of the evening. The balance between lyricism and snap, crackle, pop punctuation showed off both the hall’s marvellous acoustics and tympanist Andrei Malashenko’s exemplary skills of power and anticipation. Principal flautist Timothy Hutchins might well be given the additional title of associate conductor, using telling body language to help keep his colleagues out of the realm of “untogether”.
The Scherzo surged ahead with energy and flare, and survived the unneeded second-beat cues from Nagano, which looked more like punches than indications for clarity. Astonishingly in the Trio, about half of the strings were silenced, most looking forlorn as their colleagues soldiered on. If the desire was to change the soundscape, it was not achieved; asking for pianissimo would have rendered the same balance and ongoing engagement from all players.
The busy Finale had much to admire. As with the opening movement, the exposition repeats were not taken. The major problems were twofold: the unison clarion call of the theme needed to put the emphasis on the goal of the dotted eighth 16th (the ensuing half note; otherwise it might seem that the dotted eight sixteenth is on the downbeat, rather than leading towards it). Similarly, the many structural cadential moments (so necessary to keep the excitement going) required a feeling of arrival to fulfill their promise. Nagano would do well to read the tea leaves of the harmonic lines.
In both halves the artists were rewarded with rapturous applause and a standing ovation. One can only imagine what the tumult might have been if the whole meal had been served and a podium anchor that would allow all storms to be successfully weathered.
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Gerald Moore
1962, EMI Records
At the height of their considerable powers, Fisher-Dieskau—one of the world’s finest baritones to ever take a breath (cross-reference below)—and Moore—the incredibly canny, discreet and supportive accompanist—bring off the cycle in an unforgettable way. From the divinely understated Gute Nacht through to the sad farewell of Der Leiermann (the complete cycle, of course—Hewitt will offer the entire work at her summer festival in June—cross-reference below), the poetry leads the artists who, in turn, add subtleties and bold statements that Müller likely never dreamed possible.
Do snatch up a copy and dream along with them all. JWR