Joyce DiDonato’s Attempt at Schubert’s ‘Winterreise’

April 20, 2021 Updated: April 26, 2021

On April 23, Erato, a sister company of Time Warner, is releasing the video of a live performance of Schubert’s “Winterreise,” which took place on Dec. 15, 2019, at Carnegie Hall. The brilliant mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, accompanied by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, music director of The Metropolitan Opera, drew a capacity audience that included the writer of this article.

A Simple and a Complicated Affair

The first performance of “Winterreise” was a very simple affair. A few of Schubert’s friends gathered, just weeks before his death, to hear him play and sing the yet unfinished cycle. “Simple,” in the sense of “unadorned” or “sincere,” is a key element of Schubert’s works and strikes at the heart of his genius.

Two current celebrities sang and played the same notes 192 years later, but it was far from a simple affair. Of course, complications are sometimes unavoidable. For example, an English-speaking audience necessitated a large metal and glass apparatus suspended above the stage, flashing translations of Wilhelm Müller’s text.

Avoidable, however, was the reading not by the audience but by the artist that afternoon. As the public gazed at the suspended screen, the singer’s eyes were fixed on a copy of the vocal score, leaving little hope that the mysterious union between poet, composer, performer, and listener would take place.

Other complications appeared. The first words flashed on the screen were not the words of Wilhelm Müller, but of an unidentified author who had penned “His journal arrived today.” While the first notes of the cycle were sounded, the mind was distracted in wondering about the “journal.” Who sent it? Was it a notebook in which poems appeared, or were these rhyming stanzas supposed to represent the journal itself?

Then there was the realization that Joyce DiDonato was not playing the role of the protagonist, but representing an entirely new character. Who is this new character, this lady in an elegant Biedermeier dress? She is in mourning, one gathers, as she wears black and sits by a little table covered in black pall.

She seems to be a person of standing, considering her magnificent attire. But is she the mother of the young journeyman, or perhaps his sister? No, he was of humble stock. Is she the woman who rejected him? No, she is clearly no young maid.

In the meantime, “Gute Nacht” had come and gone, and one observed the lady, now sitting, now standing, reading the newly arrived journal. But how many times had she read it? During the well-known “Der Lindenbaum,” she presses the book to her breast and sings as if the lines had been read more than once. At other times, when, as in “Rückblick,” syllables and notes came flying at a furious pace, her eyes were riveted to the page.

Winterrreise-DiDonato cvr
“Winterreise” will be released on April 23. (Erato)

A Suspicious Affair

The idea of an additional character, a person in mourning for Müller’s young journeyman, reading his poems as from a journal, is an ingenious one, giving the text a fresh new tone and making it reasonable that a woman rather than a man is singing the lines. But could this novel idea possibly be an elaborate means of disguising the fact that the artist had not done her homework, did not know her assignment well enough to recite it from memory?

Notwithstanding the artistry of Joyce DiDonato—her beautiful voice, her graceful phrasing, her intelligence and dramatic skill—there was an impression that she was sometimes close to sight-reading, that her lessons were only half learned, that her voice had not yet settled comfortably into the contours of the musical line, and that the emotions she professed were slightly postured.

The pianist, as well, notwithstanding his formidable musical mind and disciplined fingers, seemed not to have practiced the various technical passages sufficiently: The leaves of the old “Der Lindenbaum” rustled with the greatest circumspection, the triplets in Der stürmische Morgen were murky, and the solo passages in “Mut!” were insufficiently articulated.

Still, this was no thoughtless performance. It is no easy task to provide a compelling dramatic shape for this relentless hour-long litany of despair and dashed hopes, but intelligent and intuitive solutions had been found. For example, the three pieces just before “Der Leiermann” were sung as a single unit, without pause, giving the cycle a slight thrust forward at just the right moment. The long silence that followed gave the 24th and final song remarkable emotional power. It is, after all, an epilogue, a resolution. Music appears: the great comforter.

Considering the gifts of both singer and pianist, even a first reading would reveal some of the majesty of this work. However, Erato, by releasing this performance, is endorsing the sale of bread prematurely taken out of the oven by two overly busy bakers. Joyce DiDonato and Yannick Nézet-Séguin are among the finest we have, but Schubert, great Schubert, demands more respect and more complete preparation.

Raymond Beegle has performed as a collaborative pianist in the major concert halls of the United States, Europe, and South America; has written for The Opera Quarterly, Classical Voice, Fanfare Magazine, Classic Record Collector (UK), and the New York Observer. Beegle has served on the faculty of The State University of New York–Stony Brook, The Music Academy of the West, and The American Institute of Musical Studies in Graz, Austria. He has taught in the chamber music division of The Manhattan School of Music for the past 28 years.