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INTERVIEW | Die Winterreise: Adrianne Pieczonka’s Schubertian Journey

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The Canadian soprano shares her thoughts on scaling the Mount Everest of Song Cycles.

Adrianne Pieczonka (Photo: Das Opernglas © Andreas Klingberg)
Adrianne Pieczonka (Photo: Das Opernglas © Andreas Klingberg)

February 2017 is turning out to be a banner month for soprano Adrianne Pieczonka. On February 6th in a press release, Canada Post unveiled a set of five stamps celebrating opera in Canada, and Pieczonka’s image is on one of the stamps. Now, a week later, the Canadian soprano is marking another milestone by taking on the Mount Everest of song cycles, Schubert’s magnificent Die Winterreise in front of a hometown audience, only the second time she has sung this cycle.  Song lovers, myself included, consider it the pinnacle of German Lieder. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard it, in all sorts of settings. I am moved every time by its power and sweep, the way it taps into the core, the heart and the soul of the interpreter and the audience.

The recital this afternoon was at the old RCM venue of Mazzoleni Hall, a very small space that seats about 250 at most. It was long sold out, and media tickets were hard to come by. Thanks to the good graces of the RCM publicist Barbora Krsek, I managed to get one, with the promise of a preview-review article. As I am writing this on Sunday morning – the day of the afternoon recital, Toronto is being hit by a snowstorm – I mean, how appropriate is that!

NOTE:  If I may allow myself a personal note – on my way to Mazzoleni Hall, I fell and dislocated my right shoulder right in front of the Michael Lee Chin Crystal of the ROM. Thanks to the kind people passing by, I was helped to my feet, my shoulder miraculously popped back in. Frankly, I was in no condition to attend a concert, but being only a few hundred feet away from RCM, I decided to go to the recital, and to emergency later. I owe a debt of gratitude to the kind people who helped me through this — I am sorry I don’t know the names, but I thank you!  And a special note of deep gratitude to Kris Vikmanis and Denton Creighton for driving me to Moumt Sinai Hospital emergency. As you can imagine, it’s a real challenge typing with the left hand!  The Q&A was thankfully pre-written, but the review portion is shorter than usual.

As you’ll read in the interview below, this was only the second time Pieczonka has sung this, the first was in a Schubertiade in Austria.  From the first notes, the heavy chords that opens “Gute Nacht,” I was completely drawn into the protagonist’s world, his winter’s journey. I’m used to hearing this live from either tenors or baritones, and occasionally from mezzo-sopranos, including Lois Marshall in her Hart House recital with Anton Kuerti late in her career, when she was singing as a mezzo.

Despite having heard this cycle from high voices, I admit I am conditioned to hearing it from a darker voice. With Pieczonka, from her first note on, I was struck by how lyric she sounded. Yes, it was a bit of a shock at first. But 60 seconds later, I completely forgot it, totally drawn in by her voice and her interpretation.  She sang with fresh and gleaming tone, a testament to her technique, having been singing since 1988, that’s 29 years! She has a lively vibrato which serves her well in opera. Here she scaled it back very effectively, achieving a plaintive, pure, and when the occasion calls for, a mournful sound, perfect for the text. Her delivery was one of simplicity, sincerity, deeply felt emotions, but without artifice or any unnecessary histrionics. It was an honest, heart-felt, relatively straight-forward reading of the cycle. Brava!

The tempo was on the brisk side — especially in one of my favourite songs, “Erstarrung.” The performance was almost exactly 70 minutes in duration. Rachel Andrist is of course well known and beloved in the Canadian music scene as an estimable collaborative pianist, and the co-founder of the Songmasters Series. I have heard her play numerous times, always exemplary in everything she does. This occasion was no exception. She must know this cycle like the back of her hand, and her experience showed. If truth be told, I would have preferred a somewhat softer sound from the piano, perhaps with the lid lowered to the low position. I do understand some singers prefer a stronger piano, as a means of support.  I was in the third row, and Mazzoleni Hall is tiny at 250 seats, so perhaps that’s why. Given my injury, I was going through some physical turmoil, as well as having this cycle stirring up the emotions. The last song, Der Leiermann, always moves me deeply. Today, I had tears at the end.  It wasn’t tears caused by the pain in my shoulder, but by the soloist’s deeply felt delivery. It is a recital I won’t soon forget.

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For the opera singer, the song recital poses daunting challenges.  Unlike in an opera where there are scenery, costumes, and other characters in telling a story, in a recital, it’s just the singer and the pianist. Instead of the orchestra pit separating the performer from the audience, a recital is much more intimate, often with the audience a mere few feet away.  Unlike opera, a song is typically a few minutes in duration. The singer has to tell a story in a short time, through the voice, the text, facial expression – not an easy task. And when it is as complex and lengthy as the 24-song, 70-minute Die Winterreise, it’s a real challenge.

A week ago, I contacted Pieczonka for her thoughts on singing this cycle. She is a singer whose artistry I know well, having seen her onstage numerous times and having interviewed her for articles on several occasions over nearly twenty years.  Below is a slightly edited Q&A:

JS: What attracted you to Schubert’s Die Winterreise? When did you first decide to learn it?

AP: I fell in love with this cycle nearly 30 years ago in Vienna, where I started my career. I saw German mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig perform the cycle several times and I was deeply impressed by her poise and interpretation. I immediately bought the score and started to learn the songs. I literally have been working on these songs for the past 30 years! This is not an exaggeration. I sang them for the first time in Aug 2016 at the Schubertiade Festival in Schwarzenberg, Austria, the mecca of Schubert Lied singing. I hope to perform them many times in the future. I think I only found the required courage to perform them in public in recent years. I don’t sing all that many recitals, but when I do, I’ve always done a mixed program of Lieder and art song.

JS: There some song cycles are gender-specific, probably just out of tradition, or perhaps specified by the composer. Like Winterreise and Die schone Mullerin are often sung by men, while cycles like Frauenliebe und Leben, Four Last Songs, Wesendonck Lieder are almost always sung by women.  There are exceptions – Jonas Kaufmann is supposed to sing Four Last Songs in February at the Barbican! Matthias Goerne sang Frauenliebe und Leben 10 years ago!  And Winterreise have been sung by women. How do you feel about gender-specific song cycles?  Do you think it is a good or bad thing?  Should any artist be able to perform and interpret any song cycle?

AP: Though traditionally Der Winterreise is performed by a man and the songs are written from a man’s perspective, my favourite interpreters of the cycle are women. My favourite recording is by Brigitte Fassbaender, with Aribert Reimann at the piano. Her range of colour is amazing, and I find their rendition deeply moving. I am not a stickler that for e.g.,. only a female can sing a certain song or cycle. I also was aware that Goerne sang Frauenliebe und Leben and this is highly intriguing! I can’t say I’d necessarily love the result, but I have to respect his artistic choice in choosing to perform them. I can imagine Kaufmann singing the Four Last Songs……the text here is not really all that gender specific. But as we move forward, the concept of gender identity is a huge theme in the world. Gender neutrality is a hot topic and I can see this allowing singers to experiment more with the gender identity of certain works.

JS: What are the challenges of Winterreise?  Vocal and Dramatic?  Are you doing it from memory? Will you have an intermission? Do you find remembering so much text a big challenge?  Do you feel singing off book is always better, and being freed from the music stand helps the singer to communicate with the audience?     

AP: The cycle is of course challenging – there are 24 songs in total, and I perform them without the music and without an intermission. I don’t judge other singers who use the music or schedule an intermission but I must admit that when I attend a recital and I see a music stand on stage, I am a bit disappointed. For me, I want to stand without any obstacle between me and the audience. If I had an intermission during the cycle, I feel my momentum would be disrupted. It is a long, often uncomfortable winter’s journey, through snow and hardship and I’m in it for the long haul. Will I make memory slips? Will I perhaps make a few musical mistakes? Most probably. But this is not the end of the world to me.

JS: Of the many live and recorded performances you’ve heard, is there one (or two, or more) that sticks out for you, that you admired?

AP: Thomas Quasthoff’s first recording (I believe he recorded it twice) with English pianist and old friend of mine, Charles Spencer. And Fassbaender and Reimann as stated above.

JS: Do you feel to sing this cycle, one has to be older? Someone who has had a lot of life experience, as opposed to, say, a conservatory student?

AP: I do think that it’s no wonder I am singing this cycle now and not 20 years ago. I do think, a bit like the Marschallin, which one’s comprehension and emotional connection to a role/cycle improves, ripens and deepens with age. I know that for e.g. Ian Bostridge started singing the cycle in his 20’s and has performed it now for 30 years. This is his path. I sang my first one at 53! This is my path.

JS: Of the 24 songs, do you have a favourite? And why?

AP: I have many favourites and it’s hard to single one out. There are the popular favourites like Der Lindenbaum, Die Krähe,  Das Wirtshaus or Der Leiermann.  I love these Lieder, but I also adore some less popular ones like No. 16 Letzte Hoffnung, or No. 19 Täuschung. In a nutshell, I love each and every one of them!

#MUSICALTORONTO

Joseph So

Joseph So

Joseph So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University and Associate Editor of Opera Canada.He is also a long-time contributor to La Scena Musicale and Opera (London, UK). His interest in music journalism focuses on voice, opera as well as symphonic and piano repertoires. He appears regularly as a panel member of the Big COC Podcast.He has co-edited a book, Opera in a Multicultural World: Coloniality, Culture, Performance, scheduled for publication by Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group) in 2015.
Joseph So
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