Friday, February 22, 2013

Schubert -- the hard way

Digital downloads now offer almost every kind of classical music, so I smiled when an old-fashioned compact disc landed on my desk this winter. The jacket bore no record company label, just a website name: Inside was a recording of Franz Schubert's last and greatest song cycle, "Winterreise" ("Winter Journey").

Pianist Reiko Uchida accompanied Thomas Meglioranza's vocals. The layout was simple but handsome; the liner notes included not only synopses of the songs in English but full texts in English and the original German, which many distributors no longer provide. The mailing envelope was hand-addressed and hand-stamped.

You have to understand what such an endeavor represents. (my favorite online site for the classics) lists dozens of recordings of this cycle by some of the greatest lieder singers of the 20th century. (Lied is another term for German song.) Men and women with high voices and low have taken cracks at the darkest and loneliest song cycle Schubert (or maybe anybody) ever wrote. Thrusting yourself into this group is like running your first marathon against a field of Olympic champions.

My own favorite recording pairs Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, perhaps the greatest lieder singer on record, with pianist Jorg Demus. Meglioranza acknowledges the master in his liner notes. He sent D F-D another recording of Schubert songs and got this reply: "Lovely singing. Let me tell you that you gave me much pleasure on a healthy and beautiful-sounding way to these difficult songs. Your accompanist is of the best qualities, strictly in the style called for in these pieces...." So the master, who was near the end of his own journey -- he died last May at 86 -- acknowledged a young man at the beginning of his vocal voyage.

This intelligently sung, understated version doesn't displace Fischer-Dieskau from the pinnacle of my collection. But the singing and accompaniment are sensitively done, and the sense of a man going ever deeper into the wintry night and his own despair comes through. Meglioranza's pain is real, and Uchida clings to him like an instrumental shadow.

I admire his craft, but I admire his daring even more. Meglioranza specializes in very old and very new music, dating back to the Baroque or forward to our lifetimes. A record company isn't pressuring him to sing Schubert to make quick dough. He simply realizes every serious singer has to take a crack at this repertoire, the way every serious mountaineer has to sink his ice ax into the slopes of Everest.

He took the time to learn the names of classical music critics and spent his own money (I am guessing) to mail them copies of his disc, in hopes of reviews. These days, that task can be as futile as throwing messages into ocean-bound bottles, so I hope his missives wash up on the right shores.