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Randall Scarlata, baritone

Jeremy Denk, piano

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

January 17, 2010

Jeremy Denk? Accompanist? Before you scoff:

Things are changing to a new paradigm. The past century saw the rise of the lied (German art song) to the ranks of high art. Whereas even as late as the end of the nineteenth century, lieder were originally composed for private performance in small saloons, gatherings of friends (cf., the Schubertiade, if you can imagine), the early twentieth century saw the rise of this music to concert halls and major venues, great voices (Fritz Wunderlich, Renata Tebaldi, Maria Callas, to name a few) towered over trembling pianists obliging musical accuracy and artistic vision to accommodate the draconian interpretation of celebrity soloist.

But we’re slowly beginning to un-hear the sins of our predecessors: the line betwee nsoloist and accompanist is becoming blurred. YouTube, for instance, features none other than Daniel Barenboim accompanying Thomas Quasthoff in Schubert’s Winterreise. Recent recordings by Ian Bostridge feature none other than Mitsuko Uchida at the keyboard, or Mathias Goerne with Alfred Brendel. This turns out to be a great service to the genre, changing lieder performances from party music or concert hall fare to something more meaningful. Today, performances are free to achieve their more intimate consummation. Accomplished accompanists paired with talented soloists produce a performance more informed to the musical underpinnings of the composers’ work.

Sunday afternoon’s performance at the Isabella Stuart Gardiner Museum was, of course, a perfect example of all this. Baritone Randall Scarlata is, of course, accomplished in his own rite, but it was surprising to see Jeremy Denk as accompanist for such a work. Denk (whose poignantly amusing thoughts on the life of a concert pianist can be found at http://jeremydenk.net/blog) has repeatedly graced stages world-wide, more than successfully plumbing the depths of technical interpretative and difficulty as a solo pianist. To see such an accomplished pianist accompany Schubert’s song cycle no doubt raised brows.

Not that there was any doubt, but the combination of Jeremy Denk with Randall Scarlata was fundamentally successful. Sunday’s performance provided a well-balanced traversal of Schubert’s Schöne Müllerin in the Tapestry Room of the early twentieth century mansion. Ability was certainly not lacking on the stage: both Jeremy Denk and Randall Scarlata are consummate musicians for whom the early Romantic song cycle is certainly technically feasible. The central challenge in Sunday’s concert was to coalesce in a narrative — to agree on what story Schubert is trying to tell, or how he tells it.

Faster movements of the work were certainly more thrilling than the slower ones; Das Wandern and Wohin?, the opening movements of the twenty-song cycle, launched the audience into Schubert’s world of the babbling brook and the love-lorn miller. Much of this momentum was lost upon the first slow movement, Danksagung an den Bach. This is not to say that work lost much of its intimacy during these slower movements; Der Neugierige, a spectacular juxtaposition of lullaby music with more mature lied and even aria-form music, particularly showcased Denk’s and Scarlata’s ability to interact on a musical level, smoothly transitioning between the different genres written in a single musical idea.

The work’s pivotal song, Pause, a solemn meditation on persisting through unrequited love (and where the listener begins to question the Miller’s sanity), lacked the vigor and vehemence of the earlier half of the program, but to a particular end, preferring the defeated melancholy of depression and insanity to another easy interpretation of madness and anger. Much of this bitter malaise tainted the second half of the song cycle. While the musicians were certainly capable in their penetrative reading of this music, extended movements such as Die liebe Farbe or Trockne Blumen, seemed to lack the motivation and presence that the faster movements embodied.

For the hackneyed poetry and music that hails from the completely different generation that is Die Schöne Müllerin, the combination of both musicians made the performance a patent success. In narrative structure, Schubert’s work sprang alive in surprisingly modern colors. Scarlata’s rich baritone, although sometimes strained in the upper registers, subdued the vehement drama that might offend a modern aesthetic. This subtler sense of drama was reflected in Denk’s piano — always supportive of the voice, but never declamatory in the moments that suggest protracted passion from the piano narrative. The culminating vision of both singer and pianist plumbed the psychological depths of Schubert’s work to present a chilling view of romantic love.

What a relief the Isabella Stuart Gardiner Museum concert series provides for us reviewers who are wracked with guilt about voicing opinions about performances and music. All performances in the ISGM concert series are available for free download on their classical podcast, “The Concert” — more information can be found at www.gardnermuseum.org.