In a touching and vividly personal performance, tenor Frank Kelley infused Schubert’s song cycle “Die Schöne Müllerin” with life Saturday afternoon at St. Gabriel’s Episcopal Church in Marion.
For the second program in this season’s South Coast Chamber Music Series, Kelley was thoughtfully accompanied by SCCMS artistic director Janice Weber. Schubert’s cycle tells the story of a hapless journeyman wanderer, who falls in love with a miller’s daughter on his travels. She barely notices him, but each slight gesture of hers invokes a universe of emotion. When a robust hunter enters the picture and inevitably captures her affections, the wanderer wastes away.
Schubert invested the story with great poetic and musical energy, and everything about this cycle—the word painting, the piano accompaniment, indeed each note of the cycle—bears witness to the depth of emotion felt by the wanderer. His story may be pathetic and hopeless, but his feelings—and Schubert’s musical rendering of them—become achingly compelling.
The cycle is a tour-de-force for the duo—lasting more than an hour—and Kelley sang with beautiful confidence. The pure strength of his instrument lies in the upper reaches—a golden tone, effortless and precise. But his lower range has beautiful colors as well, and Schubert’s lieder setting fit perfectly into his comfort zone. There didn’t seem to be a single note sounding forced or stretched. His German was natural, and articulation spot-on.
Weber’s part is no mere accompaniment. Schubert uses the piano to paint characters—particularly the brook that becomes the wanderer’s confidant, and offers him an end to his misery. But she also altered the moods—usually tragically, taking rare moments of happiness for the wanderer and shifting them darkly, in minor-key cadences.
The cycle rises and falls—veering toward happiness when the wanderer seizes on any small gesture to believe in love, and plunging into despair at each realization of the truth. Anyone who has been rejected in affections has experienced this.
She casually appreciates a green ribbon, and suddenly green is all he can think of. Her blue eyes mean everything. The brook comments on it all. For him, drama resides in every glance, every word, every thought.
Kelley captured it all. To call it acting a part would be an overstatement, but he brought the hapless life of the wanderer into this room with real artistry. It was a pleasure to hear.
Less pleasurable was a reading of Schubert’s great string quartet, “Death and the Maiden” (unrequited love and then death—it was a dark program, to be sure). Julia Cash and EmmaLee Holmes-Hicks (violins), Don Krishnaswami (viola), and Timothy Roberts (cello) tackled the challenging quartet after intermission.
There were intonation problems—some of the pitches in the upper strings begged for a do-over. But that happens in a demanding, expressive work. The most trying difficulties for listeners showed up in choppy ensemble playing, especially in the first movement, and again in the finale—notably in the opening of the last movement’s dance, a tarantella.
Schubert creates musical intrigue with the four musicians each playing slightly varied gestures, working toward a resolution. Too often the foursome sounded like “I’ll meet you when we get there,” rather than articulating each part in synchrony.
But there were fine moments. Cash soaring through the descant line in the initial variation of the slow movement—a theme with five variations. Roberts sketching out the second variation in the cello. The theme itself, etched out nicely by the group—a dirge that develops from a quote of the song that gives the piece its title. And the scherzo—notable for its highly developed, magical trio section.
The challenges, however, teach everyone just how difficult these great works can be, even for distinguished players like these. The next South Coast Chamber Music Series performances will be Jan. 26 and 27, with music by Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc and Vierne. For information and tickets visit www.nbsymphony.org or call 508-999-6276.