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If you are very, very lucky, you get to hear a performance every now and then that is so sublime in execution, so profound in expressive realization that it will have a place with you for the rest of your life.

I felt I had one of those  experiences Monday night in the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, since I just can't imagine ever forgetting what happened when baritone Matthias Goerne sang Schubert's "Winterreise," partnered by Christoph Eschenbach at the piano.

It represented for me an interpretive benchmark that I don't expect will be surpassed anytime soon.

One can go a few years without easily encountering "Winterreise" in concert. By a coincidence of scheduling, I heard it twice in eight days.

The first recital featured Austrian baritone Wolfgang Holzmair and pianist Russell Ryan in a Shriver Hall Concert Series presentation. The second was offered as part of the Kennedy Center's current festival, The Music of Budapest, Prague and Vienna.

Luckily, I've always felt a person can never be depressed enough. So I did not hesitate to take in two proximate doses of these 24 songs about a desolate man, unlucky at love and convinced that nothing but loneliness and wretched wandering awaits -- unless he succumbs to suicidal thoughts first.

But just as you can look at the icy painting "Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog" by Caspar David Friedrich and feel both somber and strangely uplifted, "Winterreise" can exert something like exhilaration. That is certainly how things turned out on Monday.

The music had ...

 an electric current from the first sounds of the dark, steady rhythm set by the piano in "Gute Nacht." Eschenbach, in the space of a couple measures, managed to create great tension and a remarkable palette of coloring. Goerne's entrance generated another little jolt from the warmth and intimacy of the tone, the compelling way phrases were shaped and shaded.

In just the opening moments of that first song, it was evident what an uncanny rapport the two artists had, how perfectly in sync every breath, every nuance. This continued for the next 75 minutes, so that you felt you were on very personal terms with both men, not to mention Schubert and poet Wilhelm Muller, when it was over.

The baritone produced a downright startling prism of tonal coloring along the way, often within a single, long-breathed phrase. There was a compelling darkness in the voice for the cycle's most angst-driven passages; a disarming lightness when the mood softened (as in "Irrlicht," "Fruhlingstraum," and the gentle melodic leap at the end of "Tauschung"); and any number of gradations in between.

If you didn't know what the texts were, you would still sense the meaning from how deftly articulated -- how fully lived -- each word emerged.

Eschenbach created his own compelling poetry, bringing out the richness and depth of Schubert's keyboard writing. The pianist inflected tempos with exquisite little fluctuations that spoke volumes, and his touch invariably matched the imagery of the verses. 

I suppose both musicians allowed a trace of human fallibility during the recital. I vaguely recall that the singer encountered strain in the upper register once, maybe twice. And I seem to think that one of Eschenbach's notes, at the start of "Rast," landed shy of its target.

All I really remember, though, all I care about, is that two artists with impeccable taste and uncommon insight gave a mesmerizing performance of "Winterreise." I felt privileged to witness it.


6 years ago | Read Full Story
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