Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Pavol Breslik and Amir Katz in an engrossing performance of Schubert's "Winterreise" at the Schubertiade, Hohenems (Austria)

Amir Katz and Pavol Breslik (Courtesy Munich Festspiele)
Slovakian tenor Pavol Breslik and Israeli pianist Amir Katz are no new faces to the Schubertiade that takes place in Schwarzenburg and Hohenems (Vorarlberg, Austria). I had the privilege of attending an event of the Schubertiade to hear these two outstanding artists performing Franz Schubert’s “Winterreise” at the Markus-Sittikus Hall, Hohenems, on September 6th 2018.


It was close to the end of 1826, that Schubert discovered a cycle of twelve poems by the Prussian poet Wilhelm Müller (1794-1827), entitled “Die Winterreise” (The Winter Journey) in the 1823 “Urania” literary periodical; he set the cycle to music perhaps in early 1827. However, the composer soon discovered twelve more poems, adding them to the song cycle, reshuffling the order and removing the “Die” from its title - now simply “Winterreise” - to create a starker effect. With Schubert (as was his contemporary, Müller) now facing heightened suffering and impending death, the Romantic theme of the alienated, isolated wanderer on a journey into the wintry depths of the soul in search of self-knowledge, as represented by the rejected lover setting out alone in the friendless icy European landscape, was indeed a courageous parallel to the composer’s own situation. After his close friend Joseph von Spaun had remarked on Schubert’s melancholic state, the composer invited him to hear the work, referring to it as a “cycle of horrifying (schauerlicher) songs” that “have cost me more effort than any of my other songs.”  Those present at the first hearing, which took place at a private venue, were left speechless by the dark mood of the songs as Schubert sang them with great emotion; he then broke down and wept, concluding that “I like these songs more than all the rest, and you will come to like them as well”.  On his deathbed in November 1828, Schubert's last focus was the correction of the proofs of Part II of “Winterreise”, then to be published posthumously.


Over recent years, Pavol Breslik and Amir Katz have been engaging in performance of Schubert and Schumann Lieder. Their recent “Winterreise” presentation in Hohenems was carried out with no break between the two parts, thus maintaining the audience’s candid involvement throughout. Enlisting his beautifully anchored tenor voice and rich, flexible palette of timbral colours, and eying his audience with each gesture, Breslik’s language is that of emotion, of theatre - his outpourings of warm tenderness and occasional naiveté shift seamlessly to grief and to sudden, gut-felt dramatic outbursts of unabashed, unleashed anger, gregarious and up-front, as he leaves no emotion unaddressed. Katz invites the listener into the poetic world of subtlety - of both lyrical melodiousness but also of Schubert’s enigmatic, separate emotional reserve and objectiveness in certain of the songs, in others, weaving through them and endorsing dramatic ideas. If in Müller’s monodrama the wanderer searches for answers; we hear the pianist offering some to the listener, answers unavailable to the wanderer himself.  Katz is a master of articulate filigree detail as he addresses the text’s myriad of gestures - warnings (Frühlingstraum), the elegant cantering of horses (Die Post), teardrops (Gefrorne Tränen), the marvellously evocative image of the crow soaring weightlessly high above in the sky (Die Krähe), the growling of dogs (Im Dorfe), viscious, spiralling, stormy winds (Der stürmische Morgen), the protagonist’s frantic running and sudden stops to look back (Rückblick) etc. And within a canvas that depicts winter, snow, death, tears, despair, anguish, journeying, loneliness and fate, Katz and Breslik give expression to the drama and urgency written into this unique work. But their artistry is also poignantly displayed in Schubert’s eerie, icy static effects, moments where time seems to have stood still (as in Gefrorne Tränen, Auf dem Flusse, Irrlicht, Einsamkeit and the atmospheric illusion and hopelessness of Die Nebensonnen.)  The artists also provide lush relief from the work’s soul-searching gloom to delight the listener with moments of heartening Viennese songfulness (Der Lindenbaum, Frühlingstraum). With despondency setting in deeper towards the end of the song cycle, Katz and Breslik punctuate the final song’s sparse phrases with silence to outline the haunting image of the figure of the hurdy-gurdy-playing beggar standing barefoot on the ice; here is the work’s final terrifying question for which there is no answer, only the echoing silence of a forlorn and hesitating repetitive hurdy-gurdy melody over a bare fifth drone, dying away into nothingness.


Today, Schubert’s “Winterreise” remains as gripping, remarkable and shocking as it was at its first performance. Pavol Breslik and Amir Katz’ memorable performance of it strikes a fine balance between their profound reading into the musical- and verbal texts and conviction of their own emotions as they ride the song cycle's wave of life’s uncertainties.  


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