Quasthoff mesmerizes audience
[caption id="attachment_2792" align="alignright" width="217" caption="Thomas Quasthoff"][/caption]From the Register-Guard
Every classical singer’s ideal is to communicate to an audience the emotional heart of a song or aria. Some, however, observe, even exaggerate, the accents and dynamic markings of the score without grabbing the heart of the listener. The emotions seem to come from outside the song. Renée Fleming is such a singer.
Then there are the magical few whose emotional expression comes from the core of themselves and the music. Nothing is studied or stilted; they become the song. Thomas Quasthoff is the supreme example of this kind of singer.
On Thursday evening, in his long awaited return to the Bach Festival, Quasthoff offered one of the gems from the lieder repertoire, Franz Schubert’s “Die Schöne Müllerin” (The Beautiful Miller Maid).
He was accompanied by Robert Levin, a last-minute replacement for the indisposed Jeffrey Kahane. Together they turned the story of a miller who falls in love with the boss’s daughter and ultimately loses her into a deeply moving experience.
The 20 poems that comprise this cycle were written by Wilhelm Müller, and in his hands they were less than sentimental. The craze for stories about the suicide of a young man who is spurned in love began with Goethe’s “Werther,” and by the time Müller wrote his poems the story is ripe for irony.
Schubert, however, chose only the poems that convey sincerity. In the typical 19th-century Romantic fashion, a brook is personified as a guide and counselor who ultimately sings a lullaby to the drowned miller. Although the miller’s love affair is all fantasy, he lives through the psychodrama as if it were real. Quasthoff portrayed that sincerity with uncommon tonal beauty and emotional depth.
Not that every moment was perfect. The versatile pianist Levin stepped in for Kahane on the day of the concert, resulting in some predictable moments of disjuncture between the pianist and the singer.
In the penultimate song, the dialogue between the miller and the brook, Quasthoff did not meticulously distinguish between the two speakers, nor did he emphasize a surprising F-sharp that both unsettles and solidifies the music’s tonal key. These minor imperfections, however, did not detract from a heartrending experience.
Quasthoff expertly made the stark contrasts among joy, anger, satisfaction and despair. Many of the songs are gentle and quiet and require controlled pianissimo and fine shading. The great mezzo Marilyn Horne once said that to be heard one must sing softly. Quasthoff’s delicate singing had the near capacity crowd in the large Silva Hall mesmerized. Only a few coughs punctuated the silence.
As one example of his artistry, Quasthoff made subtle distinctions between the happy and sad quiet songs. After the miller learns that his supposed beloved actually loves a hunter, he sings a song of deep despondency, “Die liebe Farbe” (the beloved color). Quasthoff for the first time sang many straight tones, without much vibrato, to heighten the tension. In the last song, a lullaby sung by the brook, Quasthoff left few eyes dry.
The piano accompaniment is crucial to this cycle. The piano must imitate a gurgling brook, a rushing brook, the stone turning at the mill as well as capture the mood of each song.
It was amazing that Levin, at such short notice, could take up this daunting task and do it so with verve.
Marilyn Farwell, a professor emerita of English at the University of Oregon, reviews vocal and choral music for The Register-Guard.