Mattei brings intensity, individual approach to “Winterreise”

Sat Feb 01, 2020 at 2:00 pm
Peter Mattei and Lars David Nilsson partnered in Schubert’s “Winterreise” Friday night at Carnegie Hall.

At the risk of repetition, it bears observing every time he sings, that Peter Mattei is one of the most versatile artists around. He has given sensational performances in a wide repertoire that has included Mozart, Rossini, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, and more; he’s currently leading a well-received production of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck at the Metropolitan Opera.

So that he should excel in Schubert lieder doesn’t necessarily come as a surprise. But neither would one expect Mattei—or any other singer, for that matter—to give a performance so captivating, so intense, and above all so thoroughly unconventional as the Winterreise that he sang in Zankel Hall on Friday night. 

The rich beauty of Mattei’s baritone was audible right from the start of “Gute Nacht,” booming out with an instrument of burgundy color and full body, but also smooth and flexible, with the slightest hint of smoke. On the last verse he flashed a pianissimo without losing any of his tone or focus. Mattei is the rare singer who has both a rich, burning chest voice and a vibrant top, and is able to achieve a full range of dynamic expression and color on every note in between.

But even more than his vocal qualities, what made Mattei’s performance so memorable was the daring of his musical choices. Winterreise, the great pinnacle of art song, can withstand a wide range of interpretations. Most tend towards a kind of sculpted beauty, and many such performances have been transcendent. Müller’s text, though, is full of burning emotion, and can support a more turbulent approach.

Mattei dove into that harsher edge of the text early on, bringing fiery intensity to both his singing and his diction in “Die Wetterfahne,” and pushing down so hard on the lid of Lars David Nilsson’s piano that it looked as though he might break the stick holding it up. “Die Krähe” he turned into a real conversation, complete with a rough, mocking imitation of the crow’s caw, and in “Mut!” he spat venom into the face of the driving snow.

Many of Mattei’s musical choices seemed to go directly against what would be expected in a more conventional reading, often revealing an alternative meaning in the text. “Gefrorne Tränen,” so often sung with quiet resignation, was unusually direct, its anguish coming through with a pleading urgency. Nilsson went right along with Mattei in his reading of the accompaniment, with an aggressive touch that hammered on the image of the wanderer’s teardrops falling in the snow.

These offbeat choices lent a vivid personality to Mattei’s readings: in “Auf dem Flusse” he seemed to be upbraiding the river with his ironic questions, and he brought a sense of whimsy to “Irrlicht, “ sliding and skipping through its disjointed melody. “Der Leiermann” in particular ended the cycle with a bold dramatic gesture: as Nilsson created an otherworldly chill in the piano, Mattei described the Leiermann with what felt like admiration, smiling as he sang with quiet wonder. The haunting final questions of the text, asking if he could go along with strange old man, were marked not so much by apprehension as by a kind of hopeful expectation.

Mattei’s intense, personal approach was most clear in “Frühlingstraum” where he quickly overcame the easy bliss of the piano’s introduction with blaring passion. The shifting emotions from one stanza to the next, from the rage of the second to the quiet sadness of the third, induced something like whiplash. But in the fourth, as he returned again to the main melody, Mattei brought a stark bitterness into his reading of the line “Ich träumte von Lieb um Liebe” (“I dreamt of love requited”). 

The friction between fond memory and anguished singing seemed incongruous at first, but in fact it was the perfect summation of what made Mattei’s interpretation of the cycle unique. His wanderer is fueled not only by unbearable longing—which he elegantly captured in his sotto voce delivery of the song’s final line—but by deep and constant disappointment, and a disillusion that turns to rage at the world around him. 

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