A “Winterreise” of contained fury from Liverman, Noda at Wolf Trap

Mon Jan 13, 2020 at 3:40 pm
Will Liverman performed Schubert’s Winterreise Sunday at Wolf Trap. Photo: Larrynx

Sunday brought an unseasonably balmy afternoon for Will Liverman’s performance of Winterreise. The American baritone returned to the Barns at Wolf Trap to perform Schubert’s icy song cycle. 

Since his apprentice years in Wolf Trap Opera Company, including one of the year’s best performances in their disturbing 2016 Rape of Lucretia, the Virginia native has gone on to roles on many stages, including the Metropolitan Opera and Santa Fe Opera.

This interpretation had a sustained intensity that never faltered. With consummate composure, Liverman stood like a glaring statue, fists clenched at his sides, for a little over an hour. Little movement or other emoting undermined the dramatic sense of a man on a journey inward, trying to hold in his explosive rage and not always succeeding.

The voice revealed itself gradually and in many complicated facets. Liverman took the first song and others in phrases that joined together two lines of poetry in a single breath, displaying powerful lung support and a seamless legato line. At the same time, he pushed ahead of his fine partner, pianist Ken Noda, who followed along more dutifully. After a quieter opening, Liverman shattered the relative quiet with a more ferocious tone at dramatic moments.

Notes in the bottom vocal range paled slightly, but Liverman applied his howling upper-range register judiciously. This helped keep the emphasis on the narrator’s interior focus, moving quietly through the night as he revisits familiar places for the last time. Other musical means brought out this unsettled quality just as much as sheer volume, especially frenetic pacing and unpredictable rubato, at its most wild-eyed in the panicked “Erstarrung.”

A telling moment in any performance of this cycle is “Der Lindenbaum,” where the narrator visits a favorite tree, now in darker times. Liverman sang this enigmatic song with gentle grandeur, soft melodic whisperings answered by ethereal piano caresses in Noda’s hands. It was both a pleasant memory but also something sinister as he passed it by in the night: just what sort of rest is promised by the tree’s rustling branches?

All of the narrator’s bottled-up rage exploded around the sixth song, “Wasserflut,” with Liverman lashing out with shattering volume on the loud repeated phrases at the ends of the second and fourth stanzas. In the final stanza of “Auf dem Flusse,” marked off by a stark dramatic silence, Liverman and Noda underscored the poet’s angry comparison of his own frozen heart to the ice-covered river, a flowing torrent hidden under the stony exterior.

As Schubert’s score demands, Noda was an equal partner in the dramatic conception. He flittered elusively in “Irrlicht,” like the will-o’-the-wisp that lures the wanderer into deep chasms. His left hand especially provided booming contrasts to softer passages, as in “Frühlingstraum,” and melodic touches in the right brought out the chipper horn of the mail delivery in “Die Post” or the lazily circling crow in “Die Krähe.”

Some of Liverman’s tempo choices seemed to put Noda off balance, as he struggled to keep up in the more frantic songs, and his right hand needed a more distinctive melodic clarity at times, as in “Mut” towards the end. These minor complaints, however, do not detract from what was a dramatically coherent performance by both musicians, understated but more vivid for its subtlety.

At the moment that mirrored “Der Lindenbaum” in the first half, the signpost in “Der Wegweiser” led the wanderer to the graveyard. The song of the mourning wreaths, brought out in Noda’s introduction to “Das Wirtshaus,” had the same sweet nostalgia as the earlier song about the beckoning tree. Death seemed an elusive goal as the slow, scratching sounds of the hurdy-gurdy in Noda’s piano part accompanied the final song, “Der Leiermann.”

Pianist Orion Weiss joins violinists Paul Huang and Danbi Um for rarely heard music by Spohr, Moszkowski, Wieniawski, and others 7:30 p.m. February 14. wolftrap.org; 703-255-1868

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