Not Quite a Sing-Along: Schubert Songs at Carnegie Hall

In 1821, in Vienna, a friend of Franz Schubert wrote to his fiancée about a singular event he’d just attended: “Last Friday I was excellently entertained … [Franz von] Schober [another friend of the composer] invited Schubert and 14 of his close acquaintances for the evening. Schubert sang and played a lot of his songs by himself, lasting until about 10 o’clock in the evening. After that we drank punch offered by one of the group, and since it was very good and plentiful, the gathering, already in a happy mood, became even merrier; it was 3 o’clock in the morning before we parted.”

Thus was launched the most celebrated series of informal gatherings in the history of music. These jolly affairs, which came to be known as Schubertiads, gave the composer an audience for an outpouring of works that, at the time, could not find a public hearing, but are now acknowledged as the greatest contribution to Western song-608 lieder, Shakespearean in their range, which Schubert wrote in astonishingly productive spurts throughout his brief, tragic life. (He died in 1828, at the age of 31.) Over the years, concert presenters, as well as people who give private musicales in their home, have seized upon the model of the Schubertiad in the hope that an evening devoted to the composer’s bittersweet spirit will provide gemütlich relief from the slickness of so many public performances.

The grandest Schubertiad I’ve ever attended was at Carnegie Hall the other evening-the southeast corner of Seventh Avenue and 57th Street was as clamorous with ticket seekers and scalpers as if the attraction had been the White Stripes. In classical-music terms, the performers were about as hot as they come: the soprano Renée Fleming, the mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, the tenor Matthew Polenzani and the bass René Pape, with the Met’s maestro, James Levine, at the piano. To establish a feeling of intimacy, the hall was dimmed to an approximation of Biedermeier candlelight; the stage was softened by kilim rugs; and the Steinway was flanked by four velvet club chairs in which one might have happily lounged until 3 in the morning.

It soon became clear, however, that this Schubertiad would be anything but a roaring good time. When the stage door opened, the participants filed out in a somber procession, wearing formal evening dress suitable for presentation to the Hapsburg court (Ms. Fleming’s emerald-green extravaganza came with a train). Mr. Levine, whose bespectacled, curly-haired corpulence gives him a more-than-passing resemblance to the Schubert in Wilhelm August Rieder’s famous watercolor portrait of 1825, sat down at the keyboard; the others each took a chair; and the first singer-René Pape-rose to kick things off with the archetypal Romantic lied, “Der Wanderer” (1816), in which an unhappy “stranger” roams the earth in search of an unattainable home.

It was hard to imagine Mr. Pape, with his strapping frame and imposing self-assurance, as anything but supremely well-rooted, and though he sounded magnificent, he managed to convey none of the wanderer’s questing angst. Rather than spending a congenial evening among musical friends, he appeared intent on knocking the socks off the back row. He seemed more comfortable in “Der Einsame” (“The Hermit”), an ode to fireside contentment from 1825, but his huge, nerve-tingling instrument failed to suggest the pain and the longing that invariably lurk behind the geniality of a composer who once said that, for him, there was no really happy music. Mr. Levine seemed lost in a trance of his own. Immobile as a stone, he held the tempo to a tight steadiness that conjured up none of the bass line’s suggestion of fire tongs poking at embers and, toward the end, made little of the cricket’s chirping. The other singers sat and gazed impassively, like people in a waiting room. Why, I wondered, hadn’t someone thought to have them standing casually around the piano, enjoying each other’s company and holding glasses of simulated schnappes ?

The word “Schubertian” describes a temperament rather than a style. The next two singers brought us closer to Schubert, the most irrepressible of composers. In the famous “Frühlingsglaube” (“Spring Faith,” 1820), Ms. Von Otter, an elegant Swedish drink of water, teased out all the colors of this radiant song of hope with a seemingly artless subtlety that recalled an aperçu of Schubert’s beloved poet, Goethe: “Nature and Art seem to shun one another, but before one realizes it, they have found each other again.” In the gently rocking “Am See” (“By the Lake,” 1823), which compares the soul to the glittering surface of the water, she made a heart-stopping effect in the closing line ” Sterne, ach, gar viele, viele ” (“Stars, ah, so many”), evoking celestial infinity by dropping her voice on the last word to an echo-like hush.

Mr. Polenzani, whose refined, silky musicality I’ve not heard in a tenor since the heyday of Cesare Valletti, 50 years ago, reminded me of another Schubertian quality: No other composer’s music so exactly expresses what he thinks and feels. The young American tenor brought a welcome, light-hearted note to the prevailing gloominess with “Fischerweise” (“Fisherman’s Song,” 1826), whose goofy innocence was curbed only by Mr. Levine’s strangely somnambulistic playing of the flowing accompaniment. Mr. Polenzani’s full-throated rendition of “Du Liebst Mich Nicht” (“You Do Not Love Me,” 1822) was fearless of the song’s dynamic contrasts-straight from the heart in its Italianate ardor.

Ms. Fleming has a beautiful album of Schubert to her credit (with the pianist Christoph Eschenbach), which generously demonstrates her sumptuous tone and command of musical nuance. All that was on ample display in her “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (“Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel,” 1814), Schubert’s first setting of Goethe and his first unbridled masterpiece. Ms. Fleming made almost too much of the operatic G of the kiss (” Und ach, sein Küss “), and her masterfully executed fade on the last line, ” Vergehen sollt !” (“I should expire!”), had more experienced diva in it than inexperienced girl. More troubling was the softness of her German diction, which made nothing of the song’s whispery consonants and diminished the poem’s urgency, which can be so telling against the monotony of the “spinning” piano, to a Sarah Vaughan–like mush. For Suleika’s “Song I” (1821), Ms. Fleming evoked Suleika’s rapture with Wagnerian opulence.

So much beautiful singing, I thought, but why did this celebration seem so stiff ?

Things loosened up, sort of, after the intermission. Mr. Levine, though he remained resolutely self-effacing, grew more alive to the fluctuations of the songs’ sometimes wayward heartbeat. Mr. Pape found an unforced, visionary stride in a song from Schubert’s valedictory cycle of 1827, Wintereisse -”Der Wegweiser” (“The Signpost”). Ms. Von Otter was wonderfully intimate in “Der Wanderer an den Mond” (“The Wanderer speaks to the Moon,” 1826), with its haunting shifts between the major and the minor-the tension between the masculine and the feminine that animates so much of Schubert. Mr. Polenzani brought unsentimental tears to my eyes with his “Die Allmacht” (“Omnipotence,” 1825), in which Schubert expresses, with shattering concentration, his conviction that God is everywhere present in Nature.

For some, the high point of this long evening, with its embarrassment of vocal riches, may have been Ms. Fleming’s rapturous “Du Bist die Ruh” (“You Are Repose,” 1823). Ms. Fleming is one of the rare singers who can do anything she wants with her bounteous instrument, and I was dismayed when she chose to sing the repetition of the high G during the ecstatic climax with a crescendo rather than with the diminuendo that more exquisitely evokes the image of eyes “illumined” by a lover’s radiance. In Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s indispensable study, Schubert’s Songs (1977), the greatest lieder singer of our time distills his wisdom about all things Schubertian when he writes that the diminuendo is “often overlooked, because of the general difficulties of execution. However, Schubert is not singing to an audience out over the prompter’s box, he is singing rather to the inner soul.” More than a very good and plentiful supply of punch, what was missing from this ambitious Schubertiad was the ebullient spirit of composer himself, a man who was keenly attuned not only to his own soul, but to the souls of his good friends-who were having a hell of a good time.