Pianist adds his own poetry to Schubert's "Schone Mullerin"

By Charles Downey
Sunday, January 16, 2011; 6:58 PM

Vocal Arts D.C. presented Robin Tritschler and Graham Johnson in a recital at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Saturday night. While the song cycle on the program, Schubert's "Die Schone Mullerin," was a familiar one, nothing about Johnson's poetic piano playing or his equally poetic pre-performance lecture was anything but singular.

The cycle is about an introverted, possibly disturbed young man, a miller, and the river that loves him, finally embracing him in a watery death. Along the way, the eponymous beautiful miller maid is a tragic distraction: While the young man falls in love with the maid, he mostly speaks with the faithful brook, and it with him. This was not necessarily the story that the author of the verses, Wilhelm Muller, meant to tell: In one of the five poems that Schubert excised from the cycle when he set it to music, Muller states quite plainly that, "though the brook speaks at the end,/That still does not make a brook a character." Schubert, whose piano part incarnates the singing brook throughout the cycle, had other ideas.

Tritschler, an Irish tenor, sang the songs in their original keys, and much about his rather light, almost disembodied voice suited the somewhat awkward narrator of the poems, in a way that Ian Bostridge has done much more memorably. Tritschler's high head voice was sweet in many places, less than heroic in others, and intonation sagged too often at the ends of phrases. No, this was Johnson's show, as he made small but ingenious changes of voicing and texture to the accompaniment, even when it does not change on the page from verse to verse in the many strophic songs.

By the end, as Johnson's river motifs washed over the narrator at last, it was hard not to believe Johnson's assertion in his pre-concert introduction that the young man of the song cycle had died in Schubert's stead. Quoting Schubert's own anguished poem from the same period, which describes a yearning for submersion in the waters of the river Lethe, to find oblivion, Johnson speculated that Schubert, in agony from the symptoms of syphilis, must have contemplated suicide himself. Happily for us, Schubert did not take the same path as the doomed miller, Johnson noted: He lived on for another five years and wrote nothing but masterpieces.

Downey is a freelance writer.

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