Coping with crisisThe University of North Carolina School of the Arts hosted an evening of German song – a Liederabend. The performers were two colleagues from James Madison University in Virginia: Kevin McMillan, baritone, and Gabriel Dobner, piano. Both have performed extensively. McMillan has appeared widely in the U.S. and Europe, and has made many recordings, including one which won a Grammy. He has appeared with major orchestras and conductors, among others Roger Norrington and Kurt Masur. Dobner has collaborated with a range of singers, made a number of recordings, and serves on the faculty of the prestigious AIMS Institute in Graz, Austria, alongside his professorship at James Madison.

Their program was refreshingly unusual. It began with three songs by Schumann, continued with a cycle by Frank Martin – a composer who should be heard more often in the U.S. than he is – and concluded with Schumann’s heavenly Dichterliebe.

McMillan has a strong, resonant voice. In the opening Schumann song, “Die Lotusblume,” he immediately drew the listener in. He is a performer one wants to see and hear. At the same time, this song only briefly showed a side of his singing which one wished were more strongly developed during this program. The song is gentle, even delicate, while McMillan rendered it more in a muscular fashion. That said, there was also fine phrasing in lovely tapered endings.

In the third song, “Mein Wagen rollet langsam,” he won appealing variety in the words. There was a ravishing turn of phrase with the line “und denke an die Liebste mein”. The song was originally intended to be part of the Dichterliebe (Poet’s Love) and the beloved tends to carry expressive weight. Both this song and the cycle come from 1840, Schumann’s great Year of Song, when he finally succeeded in marrying his own beloved, Clara.

In the previous songs, one had already noticed the sensitive, nuanced collaboration of Dobner. Here he played the substantial postlude delightfully and with beauty.

The work by Martin (1890-1974) was titled Six Monologues from Jedermann. Martin, Swiss by birth, wrote extensively for orchestra, chamber ensemble, and the voice. He was greatly influenced by his Christian faith; Jedermann is an example of this. The version of the story from which these monologues are taken, is based on much older morality plays and was written by Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874-1929), the highly regarded Austrian playwright who is especially well-known for the libretti of the Strauss operas Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier. His Jedermann has been performed at the world-renowned Salzburg Festival almost every year since the festival began in 1920. By the time Martin composed his work based on it in 1943, it would have been well-known.

Jedermann is literally every man, in the sense of a universal human archetype. Jedermann in the play is living a life of plenty. When Death comes calling, he is abandoned by everyone except his servants and sees that his riches will scarcely matter.

Martin treats this dark and tortured character with music of substantial power. The almost eerie dotted rhythms which permeate the first song suggest the tolling bells of time. Dobner, in a somewhat rambling, informative introduction to the piece, suggested that they intimate “Schicksal,” – Fate, the inevitability of oncoming Death. In the meditative opening of the first song, he played this motive in haunting, resonant fashion, creating palpable atmosphere. McMillan, for his part, is in essence a dramatic singer. Here, as the song rose to an intense climax, he gave full weight to the torment of the character. The song is searing. Even with the singer’s powerful voice, the piano, here and occasionally in other places in the program, almost began covering the words. In this song, perhaps the vehemence of the expression makes that suitable, a rawness which conveys the song still better.

The second song is rhythmic, agitated, and both artists projected it feverishly. Here the character identifies himself as Jedermann, in a gripping high point to the song. At this moment, the haunting chimes return. The ending is massive and powerful, and it was portrayed with great drama.

The brief third song is meditative. Here McMillan showed the quiet inner quality which one had sought more of in the earlier Schumann. The calm doesn’t last long, as the fourth song, also brief, picks up again on the tortured nature of the Jedermann character. The German title has the word for “annihilated” in it. The two-note chiming motive returns in harsh, rhythmic guise here. The mood calms at the start of the following song, as Jedermann is coming to accept his fate and embraces faith. The piano, richly and resonantly played here, carries the song to its peroration against the background of the admission: “von Sünden habe ich einen Berg” – I have a mountain of sins. The piano created a most portentious atmosphere.

In the last song, Jedermann embraces God and Death. It is not without passion, arriving at a high point on the word “Glorie.” The moving ending has Jedermann embracing Christ, and the piano resolving the drama on two open C chords. This was a powerful performance of a powerful piece.

Schumann’s Dichterliebe concluded the program. Schumann’s song output is one of the crown jewels in a century of great lied composers extending from Beethoven to Schoenberg. And no work, it might be fair to say, surpasses Schumann’s sublime Dichterliebe.

A high point of the cycle in this performance was “Ich grolle nicht” in a memorably passionate rendering. One would have appreciated “Aus meinen Tränen sprieβen” being gentler and more intimate – a character so essential to this cycle. “Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen,” might have had a lighter, jauntier character. “Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen” featured beautiful tracery in the piano and quiet passion from McMillan, with a rapturously beautiful moment at the ending, “sei unsere Schwester nicht bӧse” followed by a poetically played epilogue in the piano. “Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet” came to a wonderful contrast in the third verse, with ultra-legato from both voice and piano. “Das ist ein Flӧten und Geigen” was rather weighty in both voice in piano, but also came to a brilliant conclusion in the piano. The final song, “Die alten, bӧsen Lieder” captured it all: the epic marching quality of the first section, the deep change in color leading to the word “Grab” (grave), the air of mystery following it, the quiet passion which ends the singer’s role in the story, and finally the transcendent piano postlude, played with the greatest poetry and expression.

There was a lovely, rather elegiac encore titled “Laululle” (To Song), carrying the lyricism of Schubert’s similarly named “An die Musik.” The ending especially was simple and beautiful.

A feature which needs to be mentioned is the great clarity of McMillan’s German. Not to be taken for granted, it was a great asset for the words to be heard so transparently as they were, enriched and coupled with melody and with the piano.

Alongside the musical qualities of the performance, note should be made about the high quality of the streaming broadcast itself. The tone was clear, in part probably a function of what seemed like a resonant hall acoustic. There were varying camera angles and the stream came with a scroll bar, enabling the listener to revisit favorite sections. Finally, in a particularly strong addition, English translation of the text was displayed continuously (with a few hiccups) on a screen behind the stage. Sub- and supertitles have become ubiquitous in opera, but to have them in a song recital is, in this writer’s experience, exceptional. It was a huge benefit for the listener to be able to follow the line-by-line meaning. In every way, this streaming performance gave listeners, both in the socially-distanced audience and virtually, the best possible experience.