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Schubert's Winterreise from Le Salon de Musiques

01/19/2011 05:47 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

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When a young singer sets out to make his reputation in Lieder (German for art songs), he must carefully consider how he will introduce himself. He may choose appealing, often familiar works that sound more difficult than they are to avoid pushing the limits of his still forming technique and interpretive abilities. Alternately, he may choose repertoire that is new or out of the ordinary to focus the audience's attention on the novelty of the songs themselves.

Baritone Christopher Herbert chose a third option. He threw down and picked up his own gauntlet, taking on the summit of the art of Lieder, Franz Schubert's monumental Winterreise, for his local debut. Here is a work widely known for its vocally exposed, 85-minute endurance-run in twenty-four songs. Scrutinized by attentive audiences, it presents daunting technical and interpretive challenges even for veteran singers. Maybe especially for veteran singers.

You have to admire, then, the ambition of Herbert's first ever outing with Winterreise, performed with pianist François Chouchan at last Sunday's Le Salon de Musiques at the Chandler's fifth floor room. While their version is far from fully formulated, it could be a first important step for them on that long winter's journey to a full realization of the work's potential.

The sheer discipline of memorizing the words and music of Winterreise over the relatively short period of time Herbert apparently had to prepare it is commendable, not to mention his courage in facing down first performance anxieties. (He mentioned after the work's completion fearing the looming high F# in "Die Krähe." Happily, he hit the note just fine.)

Courage itself does not, however, negate the questionable wisdom of taking on a public performance of the equivalent of an actor's King Lear role so early in his acquaintance with the work.

Make no mistake. Herbert's career will likely be a memorable one. He has matinee-idol good looks and an attractive lyric voice of emerging shadings that, with careful cultivation, could put him on track for solid success in the song repertoire.

Herbert is about thirty years old. At that age a baseball player is already pacing himself to avoid strain and injury. A composer may have already achieved the peak of his powers, as had Franz Schubert who composed this work at the age of thirty. But a singer at thirty, particularly a male and a baritone, has barely taken off his training wheels.

Ian Bostridge was singing Winterreise at about this age, but his London performances had come after years of study, and his high tenor voice had developed early. Fischer-Dieskau also performed it young, but again after years of study.

While this first time run-through for Herbert and Chouchan was respectable, it was also equally far from deeply satisfying. Perhaps it is their trial run for a performance with ballet scheduled for the 29th of this month in Santa Monica. There are some steps between now and then which they could consider in their approach to the work.

Overall tempos were a bit too rapid, even for the general trend in today's Winterreise performances to move along more than their ancestors. The aforementioned "Die Krähe", for example, should depict a crow floating above the protagonist's head, but here it was more like a sprinter running alongside him.

On a technical level, Herbert would do well to sustain more legato phrasing on his lines. His phrasing sometimes yielded to choppiness. It was not clear also if the various colorations of his voice were used for expressive purposes or simply were the only ones available for the register he was singing in; low notes were invariably dark, high notes intended as soft were too often breathy.

As for Chouchan, a more distinct articulation in his pianism, particularly in the rapid passages, would come closer to a true Schubertian style. More sensitivity to phrasing to compliment textual moments will improve the subtlety of his performance. The art of piano collaboration is not the same as instrumental collaboration; the pianist must execute downbeats, for instance, infinitesimally behind his singer to allow the singer's consonants to be heard. Executed at the same time, as in this outing, the percussive piano smothers a singer's delicate consonants and compromises the audience's ability to hear the words.

With these technical aspects mastered, the singer and his pianist are ready for the even more challenging task of interpretation. This cannot happen in two weeks; it is a long, laborious process. Performers who essay Winterreise will be acutely aware of the legacy left from their predecessors in recordings, or performances still in collective public memory.

Of the two-dozen or more performances I have heard live, what is memorable in the best of them is not so much dazzling vocalism as an interpretive point of view. These performances are informed by individual personality and emotional investment, sometimes even a conceptual framework. They will be guided by a principle important to all great artists, trusting one's instincts to be true to both the work performed and oneself.

To give an idea of the potential, here are a few twitter-ready characterizations of performances I have attended that stand out: the iconic, subtly nuanced 1969 one of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in Brussels, the affectingly ponderous 1984 version from Jon Vickers with Peter Schaff at the Chandler, the poignant 1995 one in the original high-keys by tenor Peter Schreier and Alexei Lubimov at the Chandler, the super suave 1997 one from Thomas Hampson and Wolfram Rieger at the Chandler, the intensely internalized 2004 one of Matthias Goerne with Alfred Brendel at Disney Hall, the destruction-derby 2005 staged version of Erik Nelson-Werner and Michelle Schumann at the Long Beach Opera, the tough-guy 2008 version from Sam McElroy and Armen Guzelimian at an Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills, and, most recently in March 2010, psychotically unhinged one of Ian Bostridge at UCLA's Royce Hall.

One may have their preferences from the above. One may not even like some of these performances. But one must acknowledge that each bore the stamp of individual investment and integrity. Each had its own distinct personality, its own raison d'être, and each was the result of the artists' long association with the work. Absent a point of view and substantial investment by performers in Winterreise, there is little justification for taking on the rigors of preparing such a monster work.

One aspect of the program did meet high standards of professionalism. An articulate, informed UC Riverside Professor Byron Adams introduced it. He noted that Wilhelm Müller's poems depicted an "existential crisis" for the story's protagonist. He reminded the audience that in the early nineteenth century, the urban noises of today simply did not exist. Silence was truly silence. In such atmosphere, one could hear one's own heartbeat, the sound of feet tramping on snow, and the bark of dogs in a lonely city. A horse's gallop and the post-horn announcements of arriving mail, anachronistic today, would have been commonplace sounds in this period. Adams also led a discussion with the audience after the concert that touched upon symbolism in the poems, as in the "three suns" of the penultimate "Die Nebensonnen."

Le Salon de Musiques has offered two programs in a row in which its performers are essaying, singly or collectively, first time public performances of well-known classics. Yet it is important for the credibility of any chamber music series to project an image not of recent acquaintance but mastery. If that is to be the ambition of this series, it is one that should be pursued vigorously.

Above Photo: Carole Sternicha
Rodney Punt can be reached at Rodney@artspacifica.net