Polenzani / Drake
Though I've long thought its successors Winterreise (also by Schubert to Müller's poems) and Dichterliebe (Schumann and Heine) the peaks of the Romantic song cycle, the pure Edenic appeal of the genre may come through most purely in Schubert's first cycle: Die Schöne Müllerin. Or at least it did as magnificently performed this month by American tenor Matthew Polenzani.
From Rousseau to Wordsworth to countless Germans, the Romantic and proto-Romantic occupation with nature conceived it as more than just some escape -- whether from burdensome social forms, as in pre-Romantic aristocratic pastorals, or from encroaching economic and industrial order, as in later naturalist and environmentalist conceptions. Romantic nature was both teacher and ideal locus for the Romantic self, and thus -- well, let's look at the actual cycle.
Embarrassingly for some modern observers, Die Schöne Müllerin presents Romantic subjectivity in its most hapless light. The young wandering mill-hand is wracked by love, (brief) joy, and jealousy over a girl (the lovely miller's daughter of the title) whose affection for him is reluctant, brief, and perhaps (on an extreme unsympathetic interpretation) entirely imagined. For this he pitches himself into the brook. Such ineffectuality has left the protagonist open to unsympathetic claims of mental imbalance, stalking, etc. But that looks at the matter backwards. For as most have unhappily discovered at one point or other, the truth and strength of one's subjective feeling is only occasionally related to the degree or length of reciprocal sentiment. And authenticity of subjective feeling is exactly what Romantic song -- this Romantic song -- is trying to sell. The rest, in a good performance, doesn't matter.
In fact, the general lack of overt success or approval make for a more pure Romantic experience. The song-cycle, like its protagonist, stands for its appeal on little more than truth and wholeness of feeling: absent, here, are the authority-bolstering supplements of later Romantic classics -- full fathom of extremity and alienation (Winterreise), ironic self-awareness matched to feeling (Dichterliebe), landmarks of conventionally-recognized domestic bliss (Frauenliebe), or any sort of historic, mystic, or mythological dress-up (every Romantic opera ever).
What Die Schöne Müllerin does have, what guides its expression throughout, is of course the brook, ever-present in both the piano and the text, from the infectiously rhythmic wandering (learned, the first poem says, from the water's motion) of the beginning to the its own wistful/funereal lullaby (which opens into the rest of nature) for the deceased at the end. In between, the brook has an additional role, perhaps its most important: it receives the protagonist's confidences, it hears his joys and complaints -- unproblematically.
For as little purchase as the protagonist's feelings may have on his beloved's, as unprepossessing as he might otherwise be in the world, the channel of love and communication between him and the brook is never closed. That is, the mill-hand never can doubt his audience, and this essential relation shows the glory of Romanticism's dawn: sure his sincerity will find echo in the receptive heart of his listener, the poet invites one freely to hear his joys and woes and reflections as they are transformed in the magic circle of his personal Eden. (Later, as it becomes no-longer-to-be-overlooked that one's listenership can be as fickle as any beloved, the relationship is more halting -- by the end of Winterreise we're in a much different spirit of art-offering.)
It's not for everyone, of course, and that goes for singers as much as listeners. But the unprepossessing sincerity with which Polenzani always presents himself is allowed perfect expression here (just as it was wasted in Traviata). Add his excellent diction, his uncomplicatedly beautiful lyric voice, and the deep affection he seems to have inspired in the New York audience and he's as ideal an exponent of this cycle as there's ever been.
The encore, after a number of tumultuous curtain calls, was Schubert's Im Abendrot, another famous glimpse of the Romantic Eden. In this text it's poet and God whose relationship nature proves, but the certainty and satisfaction are familiar ones.