It seemed like an odd programming decision to start with.
The young Diderot String Quartet, newly in residence at Washington National Cathedral, was devoting the second of its three-concert series there this season to Harold Birston’s transcription from piano and voice of Schubert’s song cycle, “Winterreise” (“A Winter’s Journey”). In it, the group took on the piano’s role.
Saturday’s performance in the cathedral’s Great Choir featured Dashon Burton, a wonderfully talented bass-baritone whose experience has been mostly in oratorio and opera but who is possessed of the rare poetic soul of a lieder singer. So, excellent quartet (augmented in this transcription by bass player Doug Balliett), excellent singer — what could be the problem?
The problem was that the weight and soggy texture of the string accompaniment bogged down the 24-song account of a rejected lover’s snowy journey into a dreary self-pitying slog, and the added weight of the string bass didn’t help. Schubert knew better. As an equal partner in the sad romantic tale, the piano adds a granularity that etches a landscape, with leaves blowing around, icy rime, wind and stillness. There is open space in the piano’s texture. Its percussiveness can contrast with moments of gentle soothing and light. All of this was missing in a transcription that sounded persistently legato, dark and ponderous.
Burton, blessed with a voice that glows from bottom to top, projected intimacy, even in the imposing space of the Great Choir. He seemed to delight in the text and did not hesitate to whisper in the moments of greatest intensity. He used his considerable power sparingly, but it was clear that there was a lot there. Mostly, he needs to trust that, although vocal beauty lies in the vowels, it is the consonants that convey the drama. He will be performing here in May with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and he is someone to watch.