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Schubert’s Winterreise at Sosnoff

by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Feb 16th, 2019

Kayo Iwama and Rufus Müller

At Bard College’s Sosnoff Theater tenor Rufus Müller with pianist Kayo Iwama performed Franz Schubert’s most famous song-cycle. Müller sang the whole cycle of 24 songs by memory. The audience held its enthusiastic applause in suspense until the end, demanding another bow.

On his death-bed, Franz Schubert was making corrections to Winterreise. His rather sudden demise at 31 remains a mystery, yet it is quite likely that he died of typhoid, although there remain other speculations. This last masterpiece from one of the Romantic giants may now be the most famous of all German lieder.

The poems by Wilhelm Müller precociously leap into realism and later expressionism. The lyrics are concise, dense, drenched in Romantic pathos while the tone remains matter-of-fact; this incidental panorama of a journey into despair arriving from lost love, “Snow, you know about my longing, / Tell me, where does your course lead?” Uncaring Nature is presented as the human landscape. The program translation by Celia Sgroi into English is masterful.

Yet it is the music behind and around the words that creates the atmosphere which so moves the listener in this Otherworldly meditation on the journey toward frozen silence that concludes with a figura of the poet in a lonely hurdy-gurdy man playing barefoot on ice as hungry dogs snarl about him. In music Schubert achieved the peak of pathos that Romantic poetry strove for in the face of defeat. At least in the myth of Sisyphus, there will be another attempt to roll the rock uphill, but here the musician plays to an audience of none. The realism bites like frozen toes as a circling, symbolic, dooming crow follows the distraught singer. It wasn’t until after World War Two that music fans came to appreciate this melancholy masterpiece.

Schubert was a tenor and wrote for tenor voice, yet sometimes baritones have been extremely successful with the cycle. Müller was reticent and forceful when needed; his dynamics displayed both expert control with impassioned voice. The singer of these songs must be part chameleon to incarnate the varied registers of the verse, including irony (So I travel my road / Onward with sluggish feet, / Through bright, happy life”) that brims with spare simplicity and maudlin angst.

This was a superb performance, yet this was a one-night performance so that attendees don’t have the opportunity to recommend it to friends. Kayo Iwama on piano played with deep emotional expression, capturing lyrical irony and the cold beauty of the poetic landscape.