“Often in classical music, convention has determined how works are performed, and artists have been reluctant to change a time-honored way in which a piece is presented. Handel’s Messiah must end with a loud “Amen,” Brahms’ Requiem should be sung by a large chorus, and endless discussions continue on how to perform Bach.  Such is the case with Franz Schubert’s 1827 song cycle Winterreise, historically performed by a male voice. 

The winds of change on this piece began blowing almost thirty years ago, and a New York Times editorial asked, “Can a Woman Do a Man’s Job in Schubert’s Winterreise?”  In recent years, more female singers have been tackling this emotional and challenging cycle. Musical custom has dictated that a male singer present this work, but the song cycle’s themes of lost love and the imminent approach of death are universal and speak to everyone, regardless of gender. Asking the question “what happens to the winter’s journey, when we feel it through the heart of the one who was the impetus of such agony and despair,” world-renowned mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato brought her unique interpretation of Schubert’s 24-song cycle to Princeton last Wednesday night in a performance presented by Princeton University Concerts “Icons of Song” series in Richardson Auditorium. 

Winterreise tells the story of a narrator’s “Winter’s Journey” embarking into the cold of winter in an effort to erase a lost love, vividly illustrated by the piano accompaniment. The pianist has the challenging job of conveying Schubert’s emotional nuances and imagery, and DiDonato brought as her accompanist a master in finding inner lines and layers of music. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, diverting from his already herculean career as music director of both The Philadelphia Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera, accompanied DiDonato as part of a year-long collaboration exploring this work. As a conductor, Nézet-Séguin continually seeks out previously unheard musical effects, and it is not surprising that he would team with DiDonato to break tradition with a cycle of songs Schubert himself called “schauerliche Lieder” (“horrifying songs”). Nézet-Séguin refers to himself as “more of an occasional pianist,” but much like the old-school conductors of the 20th century who came up through multi-tasking opera houses, his talent is spread over multiple performance genres. DiDonato and Nézet-Séguin have been touring Winterreise throughout the country, and the setting of their recital in Richardson Auditorium was more than effective in conveying the narrator’s conflict between lost dreams and bitter reality.

The 24 songs of Winterreise convey the narrator’s conversation with her own heart about a love affair gone wrong, with DiDonato bringing new attention to the “lost love” who was the impetus of the narrator’s pain. The question of what happened to the woman who sent the narrator on a tortuous journey was not answered in the Wilhelm Müller poetry from which Schubert drew the text, but DiDonato created a scenario onstage of being that woman, reading from the narrator’s journal and responding to the inherent despair. Opening with a song which was a musical voyage in itself, DiDonato and Nézet-Séguin set the stage for a continuous flow of elegant Schubertian melodies and delicate musical effects. DiDonato sat at a small table reading from a tattered journal, using a small portion of the stage around the piano to physically respond to the emotional impact of the poetry. 

Throughout the performance, DiDonato’s voice consistently retained its characteristic richness and silky quality, and she was always in control of the emotional drama and dynamic variety. Often singing more to herself than the audience, and occasionally with a straighter tone effectively conveying grief, DiDonato well expressed the narrator’s inner torment. Several of the songs required exact timing in moving notes between singer and pianist, and both artists delivered. Schubert wrote a great deal of word-painting into the accompaniment, and Nézet-Séguin well highlighted the pulsating 8th notes which opened the journey, hollow octaves recalling wind, and staccato chords depicting “frozen tears” of ice. Elements of nature played a large role in this song cycle, with snow, wind, trees and rivers serving as equal characters to the narrator. These elements were usually found in the accompaniment, and Nézet-Séguin was often a performance unto himself, with numerous shifts of mood and emotion in the same song. In the closing “Die Leiermann,” in which the narrator encountered an old man playing a hurdy-gurdy and wonders if he can share in her anguish, DiDonato returned to her table and well communicated her despair to the audience while open 5ths in the piano eventually gave way to the sound dissipating to haunting nothingness. 

DiDonato is a current reigning queen of recital and operatic performance, and Nézet-Séguin is enjoying a career high racing up and down the New Jersey Turnpike as artistic leader of two of this country’s most venerable institutions. Both of these artists seemingly already have it all, yet took the time over the past year to explore something new in a masterpiece of lied. Bringing two artists of this caliber to Princeton to perform together was an achievement in itself, but adding such an innovative performing concept into the mix made last week’s concert an even greater treat for the audience.”

Nancy Plum, Town Topics