Lewis and Houstoun with Winterreise: a highlight in Nelson

Adam Chamber Music Festival

Winterreise by Schubert sung by Keith Lewis (tenor) with Michael Houstoun at the piano.

Nelson School of Music, Wednesday 9 February 7.30pm

Another highlight of the festival (there were almost daily) was the presence of Keith Lewis and Michael Houstoun to perform Schubert’s Winterreise. They performed to a not quite full auditorium; many, after hearing reports from friends who had heard them, would have regretted not being there.

It’s a pity, nevertheless that some of the competition on this evening came from the festival itself, with a sold-out concert at Motueka featuring the Hermitage String Trio in music that was not played in Nelson (by Schubert, Tanyeyev and Mozart – though the Divertimento K 563 had been played in Nelson on Saturday).

This cycle of 24 songs takes about an hour and a quarter; there was a break of a few minutes in the middle, but the audience sat quiet and transfixed by this consummate, moving performance by both musicians, who have to rank among the finest New Zealand musicians working at the present time.

First, I should note an innovation that sets an admirable precedent for voice recitals: the projection of surtitles. Occasional whines are still heard about them in the opera house though I have been a wholehearted supporter from their first appearance in the late 80s. If there are plausible objections to their use in opera, however, there can be none in the recital. The decision was made to not include the words or translations in the programme, to avoid the interrupting rustle of collective page turning and the dispiriting vision, for the artists, of audience heads down during the performance. In recital, eyes do not need to be constantly on the stage watching movements, gestures, expressions; nothing is lost by raising the eyes to read the words. And the surtitle screen was of ideal size, allowing easy reading of full translations in images that were very clear.

At the end of the concert booklets containing full German and English texts were distributed. The whole process was handled with great care and thoughtfulness.

My expectations had been high, but the reality left me considerably more overwhelmed that I had been prepared for. Lewis’s voice is probably not everyone’s cup of tea, but by any objective measure it is a beautifully polished instrument, with a distinctive timbre; it has a quite wide compass, with a variety of colours that change with the tessitura; he also makes good use of colour changes in the same tessitura. His voice is still very firm and clear, not at all afflicted by excessive vibrato.

Right at the beginning of the cycle, with ‘Gute Nacht’, the poet at once confronts us with heart-break, and the anguish is plain in the music and in Lewis’s voice. The poet Wilhelm Müller then employs a variety of imagery and metaphor to describe his emotions and the ways in which he attempts to deal with, or to succumb to, his grief. Lewis varied his voice to reflect these feelings with great finesse, for example, with a penetrating chill in his low notes in ‘Gefrorne Träne’; and the rushing piano chords filled with terror as he flees the town that now symbolises betrayal for him. In ‘Rast’ he seems to find consolation only for it to turn to anguish again in the last line, which Lewis captured so keenly. A similar, strange terror invades his voice in a song like ‘Die Krähe’.

Houstoun’s piano is of course omnipresent, of almost equal importance, presaging a mood or event, and supporting the vocal line with infinite sympathy. A moment like the beginning of ‘Im Dorfe’ was striking, with its tremolo piano chords and then again the racing scales that describe the passing storm in ‘Der stürmishe Morgen’.

There are the moments of calm, and consolation, like ‘Der LIndenbaum’ and ‘Frühlingstraum’ in which a cheerful triple time allows the singer to lighten his voice, only to collapse in despair as the cocks crow towards the end. A 6/8 rhythm again represents fleeting hope in ‘Täuschung’ (Delusion).

One of the most profound and moving songs is ‘Der Wegweiser’ with its repeated notes that rise forlornly at the end of the phrase. But in spite of the surfeit of grief and misery in all preceding 23 songs that accumulates unbearably in the last group, nothing can diminish the sheer despair, or eclipse the musical genius that has created ‘Der Leiermann’, which Lewis sang with an emotion as profound as I have ever heard.

Perhaps just one matter to remark – his use of the score throughout. Many singers of his stature would have such a work securely by heart. There is a good case for using a score, however, for there is no connection between musical gifts and a thorough command of a work, and the confidence to do away altogether with the safety net of printed pages. And his very infrequent glances at the audience through scarcely opened eyes seemed a little disconcerting, affecting in some way the contact with the audience. If it matters to the audience, and I think for most it does, he should school himself to make that contact.

But what really mattered was what the voice uttered and the piano delivered as equal partners: a performance of one of the greatest masterpieces in all music that was utterly memorable.

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