SCRUTINY | Toronto Mendelssohn Singers Offer Intriguing, Emotional Version Of Schubert’s Winterreise

Toronto Mendelssohn Singers Offer Intriguing, Emotional Version Of Schubert’s Winterreise

Ludwig Van
Paula Citron
March 19, 2024

Toronto Mendelssohn Singers/Winterreise by Franz Schubert, conducted by Jean-Sébastien Vallée, featuring baritone Brett Polegato, pianist Philip Chiu, and the Toronto Mendelssohn Singers, Jean Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, Mar. 16.

Since becoming artistic director of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir in 2021, Jean-Sébastien Vallée has certainly introduced more adventurous programming for the Toronto Mendelssohn Singers, the 24-member professional arm of the venerable organization.

For example, last year, the TMSingers performed a program called In Time — At the Intersection of Music and Dance. Their latest concert featured Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise in a new choral adaptation by German choral conductor and arranger Gregor Meyer that premiered in 2017.

Now purists may howl that this beloved work has been tampered with, (the two people in front of me left at intermission), but research reveals that there have been quite a few new approaches to Winterreise over the years. For instance, Meyer did a second adaptation featuring baritone, chorus and two accordions, while fellow German composer Thomas Hanelt crafted a version for choir and piano that eliminates the solo singer. The work has also been set to a klezmer-Roma score, a wind quintet, and, would you believe, it has even been arranged for a rock band.

Schubert composed Winterreise for male voice and piano in 1828 when he was dying of syphilis at the tragically young age of 31. The music is set to 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller, who was also the source for Schubert’s other great song cycle, Die schöne Müllerin (1823). Both are dramatic monologues featuring young men who are wrapped in sadness because of unrequited love. While Die schöne Müllerin begins with some degree of lightness and then journeys to apparent suicide, it can’t compare to the utter bleakness of Winterreise (Winter Journey).

The solitary, tormented Wanderer in Winterreise begins with the sorrows of lost love, but moves on to more psychological despair. He is haunted by traumatic visions. He becomes fixated on death and even renounces his faith, until finally he is filled with a resignation of emptiness. Images of winter and a frozen landscape infuse the poems which are reflected in Schubert’s music. The cold, the darkness, and the desolation embedded in the songs are almost palpable.

So how does the introduction of a choir affect Winterreise? Well frankly, it takes some getting used to. The addition of many voices, however, does make the work seem somehow more emotional, while opening up the music to a richer expression. Perhaps, the greatest impact is to heighten the solitary nature of the soloist. Here he is, surrounded by voices, but still utterly alone. The choir functions like the Greek chorus in classical tragedies. They are spectators who comment on the emotional psyche of the protagonist, even becoming his inner monologue, but still remaining resolutely apart.

In Meyer’s adaptation, the choir does not appear until the second verse of the first song, Gute Nacht (Good Night), and then it is with an almost eerie vocalise, almost one of menace. They do, however, get to perform one song on their own, Der stürmische Morgen (Stormy Morning). The text reflects the Wanderer’s joy in the savage storm, and because the singer is silent, the choir is a reflection of his inner demons. On the other hand, Meyer cleverly leaves Einsamkeit (Loneliness) without choral accompaniment.

The structure of Meyer’s adaptation is fascinating. At various times, the choir sings with the soloist, or takes over the lead, or responds like an echo. There are those moments of wordless accompaniment that underline the Wanderer’s despair. Meyer also has the chorus separating into sections at various times, so there is a real differential in the choral sound.

If I have one reservation about Meyer’s adaptation, it is that sometimes the sopranos are intrusive. Sopranos have a sharpness to their sound when in full flower, and so I found the choir’s participation worked best when the mezzo-sopranos and/or the men were used alone. One exception, however, is Der greise Kopf (The Grey Head) when one mournful soprano voice provided a plaintive wordless few notes before every stanza, in a song where the Wanderer grieves that his very youth keeps him far away from the funeral bier.

As noted before, Vallée is a master choral director, and the Toronto Mendelssohn Singers were very disciplined in their delivery. Vallée was like a recording engineer, selecting certain levels throughout, so there was tremendous diversity in the choir’s presentation. In other words, the choir was not just a wall of sound, but, rather, was fully integrated into rendering the shifts of emotional intensity present in Schubert’s music. In short, Vallée and the TMSingers are a class act.

Baritone Brett Polegato would ordinarily be alone with the piano in Winterreise, and so he had to adapt to being surrounded by a chorus, which he did beautifully. He managed to convey an image of being tragically alone, yet someone who felt the organic impact of the choir’s presence. He fiercely maintained an independent existence, and when they sang together, rendered a loud declamation of sound, never to be overpowered by 24 voices,

Polegato’s voice has certainly deepened and darkened over time, with gorgeous low notes and a more commanding sound. He also broke every recital performance rule. Young singers are usually told that showing too much emotion in a recital is verboten, and you certainly don’t ever use your body. In other words, let your voice do the talking, so to speak. Polegato, however, made a compelling figure as both his facial and body expression became one with the music. In the times when he was silent, his still figure, with eyes closed, radiated the Wanderer’s anguish and heartbreak. It was practically operatic.

The piano accompanist was Philip Chiu, who won the 2023 JUNO Award for solo classical album of the year for Fables. Therefore, we were guaranteed a strong performance that would hold its own against the choir and soloist, giving us equal partners in this most interesting of concerts.

In Winterreise, Schubert ensured that the piano was as important as the singer. In fact, the music goes hand-in-hand with the many moods of the text.

Chiu found the distinctive rhythms of each song, as well as the dramatic arc of the monodrama as a whole. In Frühlingstraum (A Dream of Springtime), he expressed the lighter, almost cheery images of spring. In Täuschung (Deception) it was an ironic waltz, while Der Wegweiser (The Signpost) was rendered in meditative reflection. Whether it was a raging storm he conveyed, or the creak of a weathervane, or the clarion call of the post horn, or the drone of the hurdy-gurdy in the sorrowful last song, Chiu delivered a performance worthy of a solo recital.

Winterreise was divided into two halves, and each began with two songs performed by the choir alone. Clara Schumann was featured in the first, and Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel in the second. The tuneful music of the women was anchored in the heart of German romanticism, that was both easy on the ears and beautifully sung.

While TMChoir kindly provided translations for the songs, the low light in the hall did not allow you to read them. It is always so much more meaningful to be able to follow along with the lied, so perhaps management can find a way to correct this problem in the future.

Read the full review on the Ludwig Van.