It’s never an easy thing to jump in for a concert, especially not when there is a historical instrument involved. The sign on the door of the Wiener Konzerthaus upon our arrival Monday evening, explaining that Vanessa Wagner had to cancel her part as pianist at the last minute and would be replaced by Gérard Wyss, did not bode well. And the announcement that Georg Nigl had nearly canceled after a serious accident ten days prior and would be using the score made everyone sigh collectively. It also, frankly, made me question why someone performing this most standard of Schubert cycles at the Konzerthaus did not apparently have it in his wheelhouse, or was still doing memory work ten days prior, but perhaps that is unfair. In principle, I do not object to singers using the score in Lied concerts, so long as it does not hinder their communication with the audience. And to his great credit, for the first half of the cycle Nigl did a lovely job of staying out of the book. After “Pause”, however, he seemed suddenly glued to the score, which was particularly problematic for quick, text-heavy numbers like “Der Jäger” and “Eifersucht und Stolz”. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This first of Schubert’s song cycles based on poems from Willhelm Müller exudes life, youth and romanticism. Born out of a time when the wandering hero was becoming a meme, it begins with an energetic ode to the wandering lifestyle, “Das Wandern”, followed by “Wohin?”, where the Miller and the brook, his companion, have their first conversation. Upon the way the Miller meets a girl, with whom he falls madly (and rather unreasonably) in love. When she seems to prefer the favors of a hunter, dressed in green, our hero grows melancholy and depressed, finally ending his life in the brook, who sings him to eternal rest in “Des Baches Wiegenlied”. As far away from today’s aesthetic as this storyline seems, the fact that it is one of the most widely performed oeuvres in song literature is due to the strength and beauty of the music. Schubert’s emancipation of the piano from the role of mere “accompaniment” is omnipresent and the piano is responsible for fabulous moments of drama and beauty.

It is always fascinating to hear the cycle performed on a historical piano. Despite the difficulties associated with performing on historical instruments (they rarely stay in tune for more than a handful of numbers; no two feel the same, making life surprising and sometimes stressful for performers; legato playing is often anathema), they provide a world of interest in terms of sound, texture and articulation, and the voice rarely has trouble cutting through. This served Nigl’s beautiful, light baritone (almost tenor-like) sound well. The hearty yet always transparent sound in the lower registers lent itself beautifully to numbers like “Eifersucht und Stolz”, “Am Feierabend” and to the repetitive, open fifth in the bass throughout “Pause”. Besides having a beautiful voice, Nigl has a wonderful sense of phrase, solid Schubertian style and impressive diction. Moreover, both he and Wyss exhibited a wonderful sense of architecture, producing some lovely colors and moments, in particular in the third verse of “Des Müllers Blumen”. I particularly enjoyed the irritation exhibited in the repetition of the phrase “Und das liebe Mädchen sagt Allen eine gute Nacht” in “Am Feierabend” and the quicker tempo illustrating the protagonist’s frustration which followed.

Unfortunately, there were many things that did not work quite so well, many of them revolving around tempo. A great number of the songs felt fundamentally too quick, or simply too quick for this constellation. There were ensemble issues, far too many missed notes in the piano, and a general feeling that this performance was being marched through as quickly as possible. In “Tränenregen” Wyss produced beautiful moments, but had his musical feet stepped on by early entrances from his partner. The least successful was “Mein!” where one clearly felt the tension between two tempos which did not have enough in common with one another. “Der Müller und der Bach”, the last words of our dying hero, was over nearly before it began, and the stream’s final lullaby “Des Baches Wiegenlied” lacked peace and tranquility. The cycle was performed in record time, and the audience was on the street (after two encores and generous applause) 75 minutes after the two had entered the hall.

The most effective moments of the evening were the encores, Schubert’s “Wanderer’s Nachtlied” (“Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh’”) and the lesser-known “Abschied” D.475. Both were moving affirmations of the high musical quality of both singer and pianist.