Winter and the moody, contemplative music of Franz Schubert go well together. One of his best-known vocal works is titled “Winterreise’’ — “A Winter Journey.’’ And a winter journey is exactly what audience members had to undertake to get to the recital of music by Schubert for piano and voice at the Gardner Museum recital hall on a snowy, arctic Sunday afternoon.
But it was not “Winterreise’’ that the hardy and heavily booted band of listeners came to hear. Instead, two young rising stars on the classical music scene, baritone Randall Scarlata and pianist Benjamin Hochman, offered an elegant, polished, and heartfelt performance of another, somewhat less familiar song cycle by Schubert, “Schwanengesang’’ (“Swan Song’’). Completing the all-Schubert program was the imposing piano Sonata No. 17 in D Major, D. 850, performed by Hochman from memory with fluid style and disarming natural grace.
Schubert (1797-1828) wrote the 14 songs set to poems by three poets (Ludwig Rellstab, Heinrich Heine, and Johann Gabriel Seidl) that constitute the “Swan Song’’ cycle in the last year of his brief life. After Schubert's death, a publisher put the songs together in a cycle, as a marketing ploy. As Scarlata explained to the audience, Schubert likely thought of the six Heine settings as a separate mini-cycle. Because the published version of “Swan Song’’ changed the intended sequence of the poems, Scarlata restored the original order, which makes much more dramatic and musical sense.
To his carefully paced and impassioned performance, sung mostly from memory, Scarlata brought impressive diction and an obvious understanding of the nuances of the German language. He also took full advantage of the unique possibilities of the Gardner's recital hall, addressing all four sides and all levels of the open space in what felt like an intimate conversation with a storyteller. Scarlata has the technique and interpretative skills to negotiate Schubert’s fleet contrasts — the constant interplay of light and dark, moving suddenly from carefree joy to blackest despair — without exaggeration or strain. Blooming in the lower range, his voice is particularly effective for such songs as “Atlas,’’ “Resting Place,’’ and the penultimate “The Ghostly Double,’’ a scary portrait of obsessive romantic attraction and schizophrenia.
Although Scarlata and Hochman were performing “Swan Song’’ together for the first time, they seemed completely at ease as a team. Both as a sensitive accompanist (supportive, never obtrusive) and as soloist in the opening Sonata, Hochman penetrated to the rustic heart of Schubert's turbulent emotional world.