Chilling Beauty

Winter Journey (Winterreise)

Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival

St. Francis Auditorium, July 31

“You have to be haunted by this song cycle to be able to sing it.” That’s how a celebrated interpreter of Franz Schubert’s Winter Journey (Winterreise) described it in the early 20th century. It’s still true a century later, as bass-baritone Philippe Sly’s totally committed and deeply moving performance of it for the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival on July 31 demonstrated.

Schubert’s passion for opera went unrequited: He started at least 17 but left about half unfinished, and the three that were staged in his lifetime were flops. His equally strong passion for poetry yielded extraordinary results, however, as he completed more than 600 masterful songs before his untimely death in 1828 at age 31.

Two song cycles set to narrative poems by Wilhelm Müller stand at the pinnacle of Schubert’s artistry: The Beautiful Mill Girl (Die Schöne Müllerin) and Winter Journey (Winterreise). Müller was a contemporary of Schubert’s, an amateur singer with an agreeable baritone voice, and a poet who was praised for his “naturalness, truth and simplicity.” His Winter Journey started with a Romantic-era cliché — the solitary, unfulfilled wanderer — which was then explored in 24 short poems of great emotional penetration.

Schubert may not have been able to master conventional operatic drama, but his song cycles are genuine dramatic masterpieces that might best be described as monodramas. Each lasts more than an hour and both can have an overwhelming emotional impact.

The first 12 songs of Winter Journey trace the protagonist’s thoughts as he wanders through a desolate, icy landscape after having been jilted by his lover. The second 12 are more internal, existential explorations of alienation, rejection, and despair. Philippe Sly’s and pianist Michael McMahon’s performance of it was riveting, achieving a cumulative emotional power with the 17th song, “In the Village,” which continued through to the devastating conclusion.

Sly’s bass-baritone has an especially rich lower register and a potent top. He has impressive tonal variety and dynamic shading, which are crucial in this piece, and a strong sense of line. His German diction was excellent, with rhythms that felt entirely text-based, rather than memorized musical notation. A few wayward pitches and some blandness in his middle register did nothing to compromise his overall achievement.

Ultimately though, it’s not vocal panache that makes a Winter Journey performance — it’s the singer’s ability to bring us along his or her internal journey, at which Sly excelled. He can communicate worlds through the simplest of means, giving an object lesson in how fully acted a performance can be with minimal movement and gesture.

His internal monologue was clearly expressed through subtle facial expressions and small, telling movements at key moments – cocking his head to the side, for instance, or the hint of a quizzical smile. In “The Grey Head,” as he lamented the fact that others were so much older and closer to death, he took a few halting steps toward the audience, powerfully conveying his character’s haunted quality, as did his barely visible physical agitation in “Last Hope,” in which the leaf that represents his hopes falls crushingly to the ground.

In the final song, “The Hurdy-Gurdy Man,” the protagonist encounters another isolated character: “Barefoot on the ice, he totters to and fro, and his little plate remains forever empty.” Here Schubert achieves a chilling simplicity, with the vocal line and hurdy-gurdy tune played in stark alternation. It was performed to telling effect, ghostly and ethereal until its last, equivocal lines — “Strange old man, shall I go with you? Will you accompany my songs?” — sung forte and then dying away. Sly and McMahon left the audience emotionally drained as well as wondering what was to come next.

In a particularly welcome development that no doubt aided the program’s success, the song texts were projected onto a screen above the performers — no more whiplash from continually looking up and down between singer and program book, and no more of those surprisingly noisy in-unison page-turns by the audience. 

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