February 20 - 27, 1 9 9 7
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Schubert 200

The bicentennial continues

by Lloyd Schwartz

[Jane 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 he seeks.

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.

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