Celebrating the 40th year of the renowned Austrian Schubertiade, Franz Schubert’s entire Lieder output is being performed this year at the festival’s two fine venues, Hohenems and Schwarzenberg. This ambitious “jubilee cycle” is tremendously inviting inasmuch as some 100 of the composer’s vast catalogue of 600 songs are being performed here for the first time.

Julia Kleiter © Theodora Richter/Paris
Julia Kleiter
© Theodora Richter/Paris
German soprano Julia Kleiter’s recent performance included a select compilation of 23 songs whose focus was a devotee’s appreciation of Nature and a tribute to beauty itself. Appearing for the eighth time at the Schubertiade this year, Kleiter was accompanied by her capable countryman Michael Gees, who himself first appeared at the Schubertiade in 1993. The two performed in Schwarzenberg’s Angelika-Kauffmann-Saal, an architectural gem whose superb acoustics continue to glean accolades for excellence. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeiting has cited the hall as having “close to ideal acoustics”, calling it a venue “that simply has no bad seats”. 

Kleiter’s interpretation of An die Sonne (To the sun) couldn’t have been more beautifully sung, nor more appropriate to the setting. As she sang “I greet you heartily in your splendour”, Kleiter rose to her highest note to emphasize the word “heartily”, turning out her song of praise with graceful gestures and stately movements. Her silvery-aqua gown seemed almost a reflection of the “shimmer of evening” she would cite in Naturgenuss (Nature’s Enjoyment), a song which was underscored with the lyric poet’s "But all splendour, gold and fame are but cheap trinkets, Nature, in your shrine.” What’s more, her seamless transitions, line to line, were like the notion of heaven that “wafts about the person who understands love’s music”. One only had to look out the window towards the foothills of the Alps to bring that message home.

From the start, Kleiter had command of her score, referring to it only seldom, and a good rapport with her audience. Through no fault of her own, however, there were hiccups in the performance along the way. Further, just before the artists came on stage, a stagehand had removed the “turn off your cell phones” sign, which − given the ambient babble before any concert − did not bode well. Indeed, when the concert was plagued three times by the drone of a cell phone, I was sorry that the audience had not be spoken to directly, if even in the briefest of welcomes, with a bid to check our phones “one more time.”

In Erlafsee (Lake Erlaf), the singer tripped her tones like droplets of water glistening under the “sun’s golden corona”, and gave us a whole constellation of stars in the song Täglich zu singen (To Sing Daily), grateful that “under an army of stars and a lovely moon, I can walk.” In the German, the word order and density, one tight syllable after another in quick succession, sometimes ran her into less that entirely lucid pronunciation; in one of the Schlegel poems – Die Gebüsche (The Bushes) – I had trouble catching all the words of the four stanzas. Twice in the first half of the programme, Kleiter quite demonstrably pushed her tempi forward at a clip, while her pianist – caught up in a barrage of notes − lagged a split second behind, threatening their optimal harmonies. Kleiter rendered Nachtviolen like a lullaby, tending towards the sweetly soporific. Her mastery of phrasing felt like a blanket wrapped around us, and truly spoke of the “radiance of exalted wistfulness”. Here, she and Gees were at their finest together.

After the break, there were brilliant moments, too: the contemplative ending of Am See (By the Lake) on the very notes for “many, many” with which the stars were described, the stars was remarkably effective. What’s more, in the piano accompaniment to the wonderful Abendbilder (Evening Songs), the piano was magical in recreating the same cosmos with a delicate and ever recurring tinkling of tones.

But after the full repertoire of songs around fading evening hues and the reflections on “vesper bells that turned hearts heavenwards”, I had hoped in the second part of the programme to hear more contrast in dynamics, to experience Kleiter with more heated temperament and in more colourful variations. The many songs around twilight, the water, sun and winds whose meanings had been divined by the lyric poets, made for little dramaturgy and limited the variations in timbre. In short, while an enjoyable evening performance, this rosy-hued selection gave us only a glimpse of the emotive contrasts and theatrical scope that Schubert was equally capable of exploring.