Dallas — Wow. Just wow. My only regret about baritone Matthias Goerne’s performance of Franz Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise at Dallas City Performance Hall Tuesday night—the first concert in the Dallas Symphony’s third Soluna: International Music and Arts Festival—is that the hall wasn’t full. That means that potential listeners missed out on what is sure to be one of the best performances of the year.
Schubert’s Winterreise, or “Winter’s Journey,” is a cycle of 24 songs describing the wanderings of a young man who has been jilted by his love. He travels through dark, gloomy winter weather, away from his home village and into the country. The cycle tracks not only his physical wanderings but also his emotional ones: grief, loss, loneliness, despair, with only occasional reprieves. It ends without solace, as the wanderer contemplates abandoning life in community and joining the beggar, the hurdy-gurdy man, in his travels.
Several things have to happen for a performance of this cycle to be effective. First, the pianist must evoke a variety of effects, including rustling leaves, a posthorn, and other background that the wanderer experiences. Pianist Markus Hinterhäuser ably achieved these effects while supporting Goerne and never overbalancing him. Hinterhäuser, the Artistic Director of the Salzburg Festival, is best known for his performances of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern as a soloist, but is a leading interpreter of lieder, as well, and it showed Tuesday night.
Matthias Goerne, a frequent soloist with the Dallas Symphony, did nearly everything just right. His dynamic range is enormous, his tonal palette extensive, and his phrasing nuanced and evocative. His diction is a bit quirky, less guttural than is usual. I speculated that this reflected a Bavarian accent in his spoken German, but no, he is from Weimar, about 150 miles north of Bavaria. His voice projected throughout Dallas City Performance Hall—little surprise, since this is a baritone who can easily fill the Meyerson. Still, I sat near the back of the hall to make sure. While this slightly reduced the intimacy of this, the most expressively vulnerable of song cycles, it established definitively that his is a voice that can reach the exit row.
The most famous songs in the cycle, “The Linden Tree” and “The Organ Grinder,” were especially fine. “The Linden Tree” begins, unusually for this cycle, in a major key, E major, and in past tense, evoking a happier time before the wanderer left home. Ultimately, though, the linden tree calls to the wanderer, offering only the peace of death. Goerne created a beautiful, poignant simplicity in this song, with moderate vibrato and clarity of phrasing. His high register here—and throughout—was gorgeous, lush yet unaffected. The change of character in the fifth stanza, from lyrical to rather terrifying, then back to lyrical in the sixth and final stanza, was dramatic without being overwrought. Just perfect.
The final song, “The Organ Grinder” (often also translated as “The Hurdy-Gurdy Man”) ends with a question: “Strange old man,/ Shall I go with you?/ Will you play your organ/ To my songs?” Baritone and scholar Ian Bostridge suggests that these final lines imply that the songs function as a neverending loop, with the second and subsequent performances accompanied by the hurdy-gurdy rather than the piano. For sure, there is no resolution here. The wanderer has not decided on a course of action or a solution to his woes. Goerne’s Wanderer experiences no redemption, and the cycle ends on a note of interrogative woe.
Matthias Goerne and Markus Hinterhäuser’s performance of Schubert’s Winterreise is just the sort of thing that makes the Soluna Festival so special: two remarkable musicians, performing remarkable music brilliantly well.