Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

An Iconic, Haunting Schubert Song Cycle Reinvented For Our Time

Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and pianist Yannick Nézet-Séguin‘s new live recording of Schubert’s Winterreise – streaming at Spotify – is heartbreaking on more levels than usual. DiDonato isn’t phased by singing a male role: she’s done that before. Unquestionably, she brings new levels of depth and angst to Wilhelm Muller’s interminable, metaphorically loaded journey through a winter wasteland. Maybe listening to this from a male perspective actually doesn’t give her enough credit, considering how troubling it is simply to hear a woman channel so much emotional devastation. In her liner notes, DiDonato relates how she’s been intrigued by how little we know about the nameless love interest whose ex was sent off stumbling into the snow. In this interpretation, the breakup was just as hard on her.

Nézet-Séguin’s clear-eyed, meticulous focus is a welcome backdrop and guide for everyone involved. He lets what might well be the most famous classical song cycle ever written tell itself, carving out a path of subtly blinding lucidity. The elephant in the room here is that this is a concert recording, from Carnegie Hall in December 2019. Just over four months later, the venue was shuttered and remains cold and dead. That context is as heartbreaking as the story itself. How much longer are New Yorkers going to tolerate Cuomo and the lockdowners’ relentless campaign of terror?

With that in mind, the suite is an even more potent metaphor – it’s hardly a stretch to read Muller’s tale of lost love as a parable of freedom lost to forces of evil, followed by an escape attempt whose end remains in doubt. Take The Signpost, a muted, troubled, spare interlude about eighty percent of the way in: is this simply an embattled individualist’s lament, or a subtle revolutionary cry? This duo leave that possibility wide open.

DiDonato’s downward cascades in the sarcastically titled overture pack quite a wallop as Nézet-Séguin maintains a very light-footed stroll, eschewing any temptation to go for either grand guignol or florid operatics. It’s a portent for the rest of the record.

There’s an almost furtive scramble to the fourth segment, Numbness, the anguish of DiDonato’s narrator wanting to melt the ice with her tears and rekindle the affair. Happy memories under the linden tree seem more ghostly here, at a distance: sleep in heavenly peace, ouch!

Rivers rise with DiDonato’s voice as Nézet-Ségui serves as anchor, both musically and emotionally. Rest proves tantalizingly elusive, a spring thaw vastly more so, in a rare crushing crescendo. Increasingly somber intimations of mortality are much more vastly spacious and funereal. The scene where the traveler ends up sleeping in the graveyard because the inn is full seems only logical, and Nézet-Séguin really makes those cruelly conclusive chords sink in. And the hushed coda, out on the ice with the homeless, drunken hurdy-gurdy player, makes for sheer horror. These two really go to the core of this music. Newcomers to the Winterreise who discover it through this recording are especially lucky.

May 30, 2021 - Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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