The bicentennial continues
by Lloyd Schwartz
It's been 12 years since Jane Struss first started singing Schubert's
Winterreise ("Winter Journey"), the King Lear/Waiting for
Godot of song cycles. "Without rest, and looking for rest," poet Wilhelm
Müller's self-exiled hero laments in "The Signpost"; "I have done nothing
wrong,/Why should I shun humanity./What foolish longing/Drives me into desolate
places?" The "inn" that refuses to let the hero inside is the cemetery; like
Robert Frost's weary traveler, he has miles to go before he's allowed the sleep
For Schubert's bicentennial, Struss, with pianist Brian Moll (at Brookline's
St. Paul's Church), has returned to the cycle. These verses are where she
lives. She's radically simplified her interpretation over the past decade. A
starker performance is hard to imagine, or a more inward one. Struss has never
been a merely perfect technician. Singing from memory and without intermission,
she might slip from pitch, miss some notes, or change a few words. But her
voice is one of the most expressive around, and how little these fluffs matter
in the light of the large issues she raises. Her Winterreise is about
life after looking into the abyss -- and the despair, the irony, and (worse)
the numbness that follows.
The utter conviction and directness of Struss's desolation is chilling, and
arrived at with the profoundest art -- the art that conceals art. "I have lived
it" underlies every note. At the end, the hero meets an old organ grinder,
poorer even than he, barefoot in the ice, ignored, attacked by snarling dogs.
Will this lonely old man, the poet asks, become his bard? Struss dropped her
hands to her side, drained her voice of color, and sang this final song in a
state of exalted exhaustion.
Moll's pacing helped build the climaxes and contributed consistent moral
support throughout. And he offered the full soundtrack of howling snowstorms,
growling dogs, fluttering branches, galloping horses, circling crows, rattling
chains, the mail carrier's posthorn, midnight snoring, and the organ grinder's
hurdy-gurdy: the wide, bleak landscape of Struss's harrowing journey.
Susan Davenny Wyner began her first professional Boston recital as a
conductor with Schubert's Unfinished Symphony -- a gesture symbolic both
of the Schubert bicentennial and of the trajectory of her own career. As a
soprano, she was a major force in the promotion and commissioning of new music.
Who wouldn't want to write for that full ripe voice? (Elliott Carter, for
example, wrote his Elizabeth Bishop cycle, A Mirror on Which To Dwell,
for her.) But a hit-and-run accident cut short her singing career. Now she's
made a heroic return as a conductor. A large crowd of well-wishers (including
composers, other musicians, and students) swelled Jordan Hall, and cheered her
and the splendid program she delivered. Really delivered.
The Unfinished was played magnificently by an orchestra to die for
(three-quarters of the Lydian String Quartet in first chairs, Peggy Pearson on
oboe, Bruce Creditor on clarinet, Renee Krimsier on flute, and so on). They
paid her the greatest compliment by paying absolute attention. She in turn
encouraged them to sing, and Schubert's familiar melodies sounded suddenly
fresh -- and felt. She defined each compositional section -- you always knew
where you were (one of Casals's great gifts as a conductor); phrases were
eloquently shaped, sonorities beautifully balanced, so you could hear what
marvels were going on behind the great tunes.
She also led two pieces by her husband, Yehudi Wyner: the world premiere of
the substantial, tightly organized, compelling Lyric Harmony, and the
Boston premiere of Epilogue: In Memory of Jacob Druckman (1996), which
begins with an outpouring of lamentation in the cello (the extraordinary Rhonda
Rider) in poignant dialogue with the quavering staccato timekeeping of the
timpani and, after a climax of heroic brasses, subsides into the quietly
falling cadences of cello and timpani, joined again over the near silence of
sustained horns. Is it the fate of artists to produce their most stirring and
beautiful work in response to their profoundest losses?
The concert ended on a cheerier note -- Mozart's heavenly Concerto for Two
Pianos, with Wyner slyly navigating the orchestra around her two soloists:
brilliant Yehudi Wyner and exuberant (if less polished) special guest star
André Previn, in town to conduct the BSO, though the best new conductor
in town was conducting him.