I had not expected to hear an overpoweringly great rendition of Schumann's "Dichterliebe" Saturday night at Carnegie Hall. For all the superstar quality of bass Rene Pape's voice and career, I had never before heard of him doing a full lieder recital here or elsewhere. And in fact he programmed it like a man making a first big splash into the field: beginning with three songs from Schubert's late "Schwanengesang" (D957) (including, of course, "Der Atlas"), touching on Wolf with the later Romantic's three Michelangelo songs, then offering a bunch of Schubert's greatest hits before turning to Schumann's cycle after intermission.
The first half, though, was both gratifying in itself and a hint of what would come. All the songs being in his native German, Pape had no difficulty with texts or diction, and his magnificent voice, both delicate and beefy at once, shone to nice effect in the familiar music. Interpretations were mostly straightforward, but with one decided theme, most noticable in the Schubert miscellany: his was the most misanthropic "Einsame" I've heard; "An die Musik" was more tormented than gently sentimental; "Lachen und Weinen" was remarkably short of the former; his "Musensohn" was, frankly, Satanic; and so on. The fierce defiance in Schubert's setting of Goethe's famous "Prometheus" was, of course, fittingly rendered.
Yes, the evening had its unity, and what was not explicit in the first half's programming became so in the singing: rapture and melancholy (both so strong in the Wolf songs), torment, defiance, sarcasm -- all the elements of Heine and Schumann's masterpiece were presented piecemeal beforehand. And so too the great overall theme of "Dichterliebe": love, unhappy love.
At this point it's difficult not to think of the rumors floating around concerning Pape's (recently difficult, so they say) private life. How much truth there is in them, I don't know. Pape certainly sang like a man touching huge personal concerns -- looking and sounding, for example, as if he'd actually lose it in the songs following "Ich grolle nicht" -- and if he in fact wasn't, then all the more glory to him for such performance skill.
In any case, the unsettled and angry undercurrents that didn't quite fit Schubert chestnuts were wholly at home in the Schumann. But they didn't dominate -- actually, the opposite. Schumann's (and Heine's) alchemy transforms the pains that were once love back into their original stuff as the story works the reverse, so that tenderness and anger strengthen -- and open new space for -- each other in any strong performance. And Pape, though again more direct in general approach than anyhow refinedly exquisite, gave love whole voice along with its unhappiness.
It was as great a performance as I've ever heard of this Romantic summit: in this case I didn't even mind that Pape is a low voice (his bass, as noted above, has a remarkable lightness with its strength) or that he passed on the climactic high note (of "Ich grolle nicht"). Brian Zeger accompanied with admirable command and songfulness throughout, lacking only a bit of the Satanic in the wedding music (of "Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen").
What could follow such success -- and proportionately huge cheering? Strauss, of course: his "Zueignung", sung here with a radiant combination of relief and relish. But that wouldn't satisfy the audience, and Pape finished with one more encore -- in English, this time, breaking the German spell: Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Some Enchanted Evening". Twice again love, but in a more thankful vein.
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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.