Power of `Winterreise'

Classical Review

October 25, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

It's a good thing Prozac wasn't invented a couple of centuries ago. Otherwise, we might never have had the severely depressing poems of early German romantic Wilhelm Muller and the equally bleak, but profoundly beautiful, cycle for voice and piano by Franz Schubert that they inspired.

Winterreise (Winter Journey) is a collection of 24 songs with Muller texts that delve into the mind of a spurned lover who wanders through a snow-covered landscape on the road "by which no one has ever come back." In about 75 minutes, loneliness and loss are explored from nearly every angle - sentimental and spiritual, specific and metaphorical, pathetic and ironic. These songs, which find Schubert at his most incisive, represent one of the great challenges in the vocal repertoire. Exceptional tonal control and flexibility of articulation are required. It's an interpretive matter; the singer has to make every step of this tormented soul's icy journey believable and convey the weight of the "frozen tears," the inner "strife and storm."

Jose van Dam, the Belgian-born bass-baritone whose four-decade career includes the portrayal of the title role in Olivier Messiaen's mystic opera Saint Francis d'Assise, is the kind of artist who can make Winterreise a riveting experience.

That's what he did Tuesday night at the French Embassy in Washington, presented by the Vocal Arts Society.

Van Dam's voice may have lost some of its original sheen and firmness, especially at the very lowest register, but the communicative instincts continue to deepen. His approach was marked by a consistently warm sound that made the darkness of the texts all the more poignant. Phrases were spun out naturally, compellingly. The singer ensured that the last line of a song would have the utmost poetic and emotional impact, putting an extra touch of tenderness into the tone, as in Der Lindenbaum, Einsamkeit and Letzte Hoffnung. Songs with heated, passionate outbursts were delivered with force, but this was a performance characterized foremost by subtlety.

Maciej Pikulski demonstrated why he has been van Dam's accompanist for nearly 10 years. The playing was as intuitive and sensitive as the vocalism.

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