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Creme de la Creme

New York
Walter Reade Theater
11/05/2001 -  
Franz Schubert: 19 Songs
Christoph Genz (tenor)
Wolfram Rieger (piano)

“…what an overwhelming effect must not these truly god-like inspirations, these revelations of musical clairvoyance exercise on the world of those who understand the German tongue!”

Diary of Michael Vogl

Who was the greatest symphonist? Beethoven? Brahms? Bruckner? Mahler? Who wrote the most beautiful works for chamber ensemble, for solo piano, for chorus? Of course, the answers to all of these questions are totally subjective and fodder for innumerable hours of debate. However, when the talk rolls around to the art of the song, only one name is paramount: Franz Peter Schubert. Perhaps fitting for the man who virtually invented the genre, it is universally accepted that the lieder of Schubert hover angelically over the outputs of all of the other composers who attempted to, as Vogl’s diary also states, “clothe their thoughts in music”. Blurring the lines between popular and classical, these songs are as well known by German and Austrian schoolchildren (or at least were until recently) as by serious scholars and invested performers. What makes them so all-encompassingly beloved are their flowingly poignant melodies and their surprisingly disturbing appoggiaturas and modulations. In just a few strophes we experience all of the joy, pain and grief of a Dickens novel, all of the tensions and releases of an Ibsen play. These miniatures occupy much the same place in Western art as the haiku of Basho do in the rarified aesthetic atmosphere of Japan.

The fortuitous meeting and subsequent partnership of Schubert and Vogl meshed two opposite personalities into one fruitful whole. The fledgling composer was tormented and painfully shy, the operatic baritone extroverted and supremely self-confident (Hesse’s novel Gertrude is a modern retelling of this strange symbiosis). It was Vogl’s embracing of Schubert’s genius which ultimately produced this huge body of work, for even the songs written before their initial encounter, such as the seminal Erlkoenig, might not have seen the light of the public day without the singer’s decision to bring the retiring youth along on his extremely successful concert tours (it is doubtful that Schubert served as Vogl’s accompanist on stage, for his terminal bashfulness dominated any secret wishes for recognition as a performer; he became instead the most eminent page turner in history). The boy was a virtual court composer for the baritone as he, in turn, introduced the young man’s miraculous creative talents to a thrilled and widespread audience (Vogl was not above tinkering with the musical material, however, and so it is uncertain as to what exactly was composed by Schubert in any given setting from those golden days).

By all accounts, these maiden voyages consisted of excellent performances and immediately set the bar high for the interpretive tradition of polishing these particular gems. In the 20th century, all of the prominent recital tenors from McCormack to Bostridge cut their teeth on these lieder and, for a 21st century aspirant, it is a supremely daunting task to present an entire program of them in such a savvy place as New York.
For his United States recital debut, Christoph Genz chose his site intelligently. Rather than expose these delicious treasures to the wide open spaces of most major venues, the former choir boy of Bach’s own Thomaskirche of Leipzig selected not Avery Fisher or Alice Tully Halls for his first concert but rather the much smaller and intimate Walter Reade Theater, most famous as the home of the Lincoln Center Film Festival. In this cinema with approximately 300 seats, the only concert space in the city with cup holders, young Mr. Genz could spin his silken webs of song without fear that they would collapse under their own weight. His is a sweet tenor voice and one which evokes the innocence of youth. His instrument’s natural delicacy served him well as he portrayed Schubert’s victims and naturalistic narrators. The program notes mention his experience as Tamino; I have no doubt that he can put over a very evocative Oh, Darkest Night!.

I was suitably impressed even before Mr. Genz began to vocalize because of the gossamer touch of his pianist. Wolfram Rieger is a lieder specialist and brought a great storehouse of understanding to the event. His puckish nimbleness was the perfect accompaniment for these airy and gentle songs which best displayed the tenor’s melodic and thespian abilities. Mr. Genz was instantly at home in this milieu, soaring gracefully in a rich flowing line above the three quarter barcarolle which is Im Haine and creating a gloriously detached irony in such classics as Fischerweise. Supremely assured in his lower register, Genz dazzled with the depth of both feeling and tessitura in An Mignon and Auf der Bruck. Song after song was delivered in the same professional manner, each a lovely primer on lieder etiquette.

But this very consistency began to reveal itself as a problem. The first fifteen songs were all cut from the same cloth, pleasantly presented and expertly enunciated, they at some point crossed the border into ennui. I have often complained in these pages before that opera singers, by their very orientation and training, do not make good proponents for the lied because they overdramatize and employ all of the tricks of stagecraft to their voice, thus destroying the diaphanous nature of the art song. Mr. Genz is not at all susceptible to this tendency; he truly gets it: the singing of lieder is a totally different experience from that of the lyric theater. However, I began to yearn after the interval for just a little artificiality to break up the monotony.

Not being careful for what I wished, I learned at the singing of the Erlkoenig why Mr. Genz had held himself in check for so long. In this wildly romantic ballade, restraint turned to strain as Genz pushed his callow voice past its abbreviated limit and surrendered in his passion to the demons of improper intonation (this is really a baritone song after all). He quickly pulled back to his more comfortable style in the remaining three pieces and once again chose intelligently by presenting quiet and gentle encores which were much more suited to his particular range and temperament. Perhaps he was a bit nervous in this major debut, but a little more élan in his Die Forelle would have made for a much more satisfying end to the proceedings. My overall impression is that this is an artist of significant promise and apparently his natural talents run in the family. His brother Stephan, Guglielmo to his Ferrando this season in Hamburg, has his own recital scheduled in January at Tully. I have already penciled it into my schedule.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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