Schubert’s great song cycle, “Die Winterreise (“Winter Journey”), was given a rare and outstanding performance Friday at Corthell Hall in Gorham by bass Malcom Smith and pianist Paul Wyse. The capacity audience gave it a standing ovation.
Smith, at 81, has lost little of his vocal power, and the effect of the 24 songs – a paean to the triumph of art over despair – was overwhelming. Wyse was a sensitive partner, rather than an accompanist, also creating – with Schubert’s help – some amazing sound pictures, from post horns to hurdy-gurdies. The latter was the most intriguing, simulating the drone of the cranked instrument, with a missing stop.
The song cycle, a tragic opera in miniature lasting over an hour, places great demands on both the endurance and versatility of the artists, but its sections are so varied musically that the hour passes in no time. Sometimes the contrasts are so strong as to be humorous, as when the bleak midwinter is suddenly melted by a babbling summer brook.
The cycle is intended to be sung uninterrupted, but Wyse and Smith took a short break between each section of six verses, which worked quite well as a relief from the intensity. During the interludes, Wyse gave a brief synopsis of the segments to follow, which was also printed on a program insert.
The object, he said, was to eliminate the distraction, and rustling caused by constant references to a translation. For those at all familiar with German, no translation was needed, primarily because of Smith’s clarity in even the most violent passages.
Before the next performance, at SUNY in Potsdam, where Wyse teaches in the Crane School of Music, some editing of the synopses needs to be done to eliminate egregious grammatical errors.
The high points of the performance were too numerous to list here, but the famous song “Der Lindenbaum” was especially moving. The bass version of the cycle, originally intended for tenor, makes it more heroic than pathetic, particularly evident in the final songs “Das Wirtshaus” (“The Inn”) and “Mut!” (“Courage”). In Smith’s hands, the call for the poet’s trusty staff is as delightfully defiant as Baron Ochs’ “Leopold! wir gangens!” in “Der Rosenkavalier.”
All in all, a welcome antidote to a cold Maine winter.
Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at: