The German poet Wilhelm Müller provided the texts for Franz Schubert’s 1828 song cycle Die Winterreise. Müller had died at age 32 of a heart attack, five years before Schubert, who succumbed to a venereal disease, like Müller did at 32 years of age.
Both Müller, poet of words and Schubert, poet of music created what is arguably the greatest song cycle of all time. Well over an hour in length, Die Winterreise (The Winter Journey), completed during the last few months of the composer’s life portrays a harrowing descent from heartbreak to a final existential embrace of an long awaited end.
Schubert’s friends expressed concern over the horrific nature of two dozen interlinked songs that take both the interpreters and the listener on an unrelenting chilling journey of darkness and despondency. But the composer insisted that songs that even his closest of friends did not like or understand would eventually be recognized among the greatest creations of the Romantic Era. No wonder that the German composer’s greatest composition for voice and piano reminds some of us of other monumental works that chart a human soul’s journey from the unhappiness of the living to the quietude of the grave: Shakespeare’s King Lear, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, some of Pablo Neruda’s Sonnets…
The requirements for the singer who dares to take on Die Winterreise call for a protean being with brains and brawn, vocal beauty, musicianship, musicality, and soulfulness. Simon Barrad, an enormously gifted artist measured up on every count as he rose to the immense challenge that Schubert’s final work presents.
On the opening night of The Art of the Piano Festival at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Simon Barrad held the audience emotionally captive in the intimate Werner Recital Hall for the length of the performance. The possessor of a chameleonic, multi-colored voice, now bright, now dark hued, one that easily rises to the top of the lyric baritone range for climactic moments only to then comfortably descend to the bass depths, the young singer gave a performance for the books.
Schubert’s legendary genius for tone painting is present in the piano accompaniments of Die Winterreise: an unceasingly spinning weathervane in Die Wetterfahne, the melting of ice and the flowing water in Wasserflut, the gallop of a postman’s horse in Die Post, the overhead fluttering of a bird of omen in Die Krähe, all and more of which must be brought to life by the pianist. Sensitive and pliable at all times, bold and assertive when called for, never prone to antics or mannerisms, Awadagin Pratt, a consummate master of the keyboard, proved to be the perfect partner for the singer, summoning a multitude of dynamics and colors from his instrument.
Simon Barrad singing barely above a whisper and Awadagin Pratt hardly touching the keyboard brought the evening to a chilling musical close with the eerie stasis of Die Leiermann, the Death-like Hurdy-Gurdy player who brings to a final end Schubert’s Die Winterreise.
Barrad’s and Pratt’s Die Winterreise was a journey of the soul that for the length of an unforgettable evening we took as awed companions of two superlative artists.
Rafael de Acha