Ryan McKinny and Kim Pensinger Witman perform ‘Winterreise’ at Wolf Trap Barns


Ryan McKinny (Courtesy of Wolf Trap)
March 9

It was a perfect “Winterreise” setting — a dark winter’s night, a small rustic hall with ideally intimate acoustics and the partnership of a wonderfully sensitive pianist.

Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny wove his heartsick journey through Schubert’s 24-song cycle at the Wolf Trap Barns on Friday with Kim Pensinger Witman’s exceptional pianism as his artistic and poetic companion. The songs followed one another almost without pause and, with no intermission, an hour of longing, dreaming, despair and questioning flew by — a good Romantic wallow.

McKinny, who is a sought-after opera singer with both “Rigoletto” and “Das Rheingold” among the operas on his agenda for this season, proportioned his voice well for this smaller form. The bottom of his range, gorgeously rich and resonant in “the deepest rocky chasms” of the “Will-o’-the-wisp,” and his high pianissimos both spoke powerfully, sometimes with spooky anxiety, sometimes in despair. And, although he tended toward darkly covered diction, he painted incisive moments of resolve and tragic moments of sadness. There was the almost palpable dreaminess of the “Frühlingstraum,” the mingling of bitterness and longing of “The Linden Tree” and the resignation of “The Hurdy-Gurdy Man,” made more ironic by its light delivery.

But there were also the songs (“Flood” and “On the River,” among others) when the McKinny who could immerse himself so deeply in the wanderer’s soul ceded the stage to a McKinny whose weltschmerz seemed more programmed and premeditated than internalized, and whose moments of raging angst didn’t so much bubble up as get switched on. It was here that his evening’s stiff, almost mechanical stage presence most got in the way of his message.

Witman played her part to the hilt with an exquisite sense of touch and timing, immersing herself in the galloping of horses’ hooves and the fluttering of birds’ wings, in heartbeats and in all the other phenomena of nature and the inner life that the music and the poetry implied.

Reinthaler is a freelance writer.

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