In late September, 1967, as a Barnard College student in New York, I headed to the Playhouse at Hunter College for my first live Winterreise... performed by Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten! The cycle had conquered me via LPs, but this experience overwhelmed me, and so began decades of encounters with the masterwork, each striking a different balance among the emotional states, yet the totality always a sweeping arch of musical humanity. The interpreters were unfailingly true to Schubert’s music and Müller’s verses, the singers straightforward, with neither histrionics nor stiffness. Among them were Fischer-Dieskau, Prey, Schreier, Hampson and Goerne, and more recently, Randall Scarlata. And the pianists included Moore, Schiff and Brendel.

Joyce DiDonato sings <i>Winterreise</i> © 2019 Chris Lee
Joyce DiDonato sings Winterreise
© 2019 Chris Lee

But there were also two superb German mezzo-sopranos, Christa Ludwig and Brigitte Fassbaender, producing some of the most profound and beautifully sung interpretations I have heard, defying the “but it’s a man’s texts” still prevalent in the 1980s and 90s. Lotte Lehmann had sung Winterreise way before then and, at Carnegie Hall, which has presented the work 31 times in the main auditorium since 1967 (Dieskau’s first of three), it was contralto Georgia Phelps who in 1956 gave the first Winterreise, in the recital hall.

So I was both pleased and intrigued at hearing it sung by another great mezzo, Joyce DiDonato, known for her wonderful voice and technique and for her intelligence, musicianship and way with words (albeit usually Italian or French). Her pianist was none other than brilliant conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin; they are long-time devoted collaborators. In fact, it was Nézet-Séguin who persuaded her to take on this monumental task, something she had never considered, as she wrote in the program notes, and into whose world she had difficulty entering. She kept wondering about the faithless “Mädchen” who had sent the protagonist on his cold, perhaps fatal, journey. DiDonato has always asked herself what happens to Charlotte after Werther’s suicide; now she pondered another young woman’s fate – her key to Winterreise was from the Mädchen’s viewpoint, the perspective of “the survivor. The one left behind.” expressed onstage through reading the journal DiDonato imagined he might have sent her.

While admiring DiDonato for her analysis and her concern for someone we only know through the poet’s (non-stop) references, I worried that this might distort the interpretation, but I put my trust in the two consummate artists. Nézet-Séguin was totally supportive while creating ideal vignettes with the solo piano sections. However, reading twenty-four Lieder? It’s not Charlotte’s Letter Scene!

Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Joyce DiDonato © 2019 Chris Lee
Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Joyce DiDonato
© 2019 Chris Lee

Sure enough, my irritation-at-distraction vibes turned on immediately, seeing the first supertitle: “I received his journal in the post…” and DiDonato, in a black late-19th-century-style gown, sat down at a small black-draped table in front of the far end of the piano, picked up a small leather-bound book and never let it go until the last Lied. She sat much of the time, looking down at the journal and turning pages, sometimes lifting her head, but mostly high up or to the side. She stood, walked along the piano, emoted with her hands, and occasionally gazed out. I just wanted her to stand still and sing and let the music and text flow through her to us. It was no coincidence that the most powerful Lied of all was the final Der Leiermann that she sang empty-handed, staring straight out with the right expression of emptiness.

DiDonato’s lovely voice and many of the words came across, but despite her dramatic skill, some subtleties and details were lost in the reading while others were not always what the music and text demanded: various high notes were loud outbursts while some potentially expressive consonants were weak and vowels were not always quite right. This may sound picky, but German Lieder need “picky” – and I bet that DiDonato, chucking the journal and delving into the music and text on their own, could turn herself into another great Winterreise interpreter.

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