A Winter’s Tale
Carnegie Hall, Zankel Hall
Franz Schubert: Winterreise, D. 911
Peter Mattei (baritone), Lars David Nilsson (piano)
Manhattan is not exactly freezing this winter, but anyone who wanted a sense of the season could decamp to Carnegie Hall for this wintry song cycle of frosty human sentiments. They could do so, that is, if they were lucky enough to get a ticket to this long sold out recital by the versatile Swedish baritone Peter Mattei, arguably the greatest dramatic baritone performing today. Caught between the emotive Romanticism of Beethoven and the magnificent operas of Wagner, Franz Schubert adapted the art song (Lieder) form to relate the emotive depths of the human experience. Based on poems by Schubert’s contemporary Wilhelm Müller, Winterreise, “a winter’s journey,” presents twenty-four songs. A spurned lover who initially wallows in his fond memories, its nameless narrator is a wanderer who finds no solace in nature or humanity. The cycle’s monodrama relates his gradual loss of sanity and ends in death of his very soul. Schubert described the songs to his friends as “horrifying.” One of them, whom Schubert invited to a run-through with himself singing them at the piano, recorded that he and his fellows were “dumbfounded by the mournful, gloomy tone” and registered their dislike with the composer. Schubert told them that would eventually come to like them, and their popularity today is not in question.
“He is so emo!,” shouted a young audience member on his way out of the concert. Indeed, the narrator is. In whatever form, the primacy of emotion has been an immutable part of the human experience for all recorded history. Our species has devised different ways of assessing or suppressing emotional breakdown, but setting it to music was a special gift of the Romantics, and few have equaled their power to move in what even today remains a Romantic age. Winterreise is an exceptional case. In Schubert’s earlier song cycle, Die schöne Müllerin, nature helps restore the soul of its narrator, who was also betrayed in love. Here, however, nature destroys him as though it were conspiring with the faithless maiden.
Peter Mattei is an extraordinary talent, equally at home in uproarious comedy and the dark depths of tragedy. His latest triumph is a celebrated run in the murderous title role of Alban Berg’s deeply disturbing opera Wozzeck at the Metropolitan Opera. He attacked Schubert’s powerful songs with an almost surreal pathos, plumbing their darkest depths of isolation and despair. For one of the most riveting hours of music I have ever experienced, he roved between the rage that psychologists tell us is depression turned outward and the depression that is rage turned inward. By the time he reached the final song, “Der Leiermann” (“The Organ Grinder”), a wry realization of life’s absurdity shone through in a retiring piano of finality. There were no encores. There did not need to be.
Paul du Quenoy