Peter Schreier, the German tenor who returned with pianist Alexei Lubimov to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Wednesday night for a poignant performance of Schubert's "Winterreise," doesn't live up to his name. Thank goodness.
Schreier , after all, means screamer . And screaming is hardly the sort of indulgence practiced by an artist of Schreier's intelligence and sensitivity. In an age where many a glamorous tenor labors under the profitable delusion that bigger is better and amplified bellowing is boffo, the bespectacled Schreier stubbornly seeks the gentle rewards of subtlety and introspection.
He whispers, and leaves the screaming to the circus-act superstars. He remains a thinking-person's tenor.
He never did possess a voice of stentorian impact, of course. A lyric tenor who always refused to spend beyond his vocal means, he specialized in the graceful, sophisticated delights of Mozart.
At 59, his voice is beginning to show signs of wear. His timbre, once sensual, is turning a bit dry. Top tones are beginning to sound somewhat edgy and nasal under pressure (shades of his illustrious predecessor, Julius Patzak). Low notes sometimes threaten to evaporate in the cool night air. The range of color at his disposal, never huge, now seems to be shrinking.
Does it matter? Not much.
Schreier knows exactly how to communicate pathos with the slender means at his disposal. Even in a house that is much too large a home for a wholly effective \o7 Lieder\f7 recital, he scales everything down. He never forces, never exaggerates, never distorts. He savors the text, without over-accentuating it, and he sustains the mood of numb desperation without resorting to extraneous theatrical devices.
It might be argued that lower voices can make more of the bleak sentiment in Schubert's arduous 75-minute journey. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's baritone defined the episodic melancholy of Wilhelm Muller's poems with greater focus on verbal detail (some called it illuminating, others fussy). Hans Hotter's bass turned the song cycle into an excruciating study of heroism in decay.
Still, there is much to admire in Schreier's brighter and lighter approach: the careful gradation of dynamic stresses, the essential purity of expression, the exquisitely muted drama, the constant striving for bel-canto suavity and, above all, the impeccable musicality.
The musicality, not incidentally, cannot be too surprising to those who recall Schreier's last engagement at the Music Center. Three years ago, he served as both conductor and Evangelist in a Philharmonic performance of Bach's "St. Matthew Passion." Intentions may have outweighed achievements, but the abiding intelligence and ambition were impressive.
In addition to a strong technique, Schreier obviously commands strong nerves and unflappable powers of concentration. In a demonstration of inexcusable insensitivity, the management decided to seat latecomers during "Der Lindenbaum," the most affecting moment of repose in the "Winterreise." A lesser interpreter might have stopped mid-phrase and waited for the commotion to subside. A more temperamental singer might had stomped off the stage at the mood-shattering intrusion (I've seen it happen). Schreier blithely went on as if the crass intruders were both inaudible and invisible.
The artistic standards remained lofty throughout the evening. Still, one can look back with special pleasure to the delicate reverie of "Frulingstraum," the unlikely rapture of "Die Post" and, finally, the tense despair of "Der Leiermann."
In each of these high points, Lubimov proved himself a flexible, inspired partner. For him, selfless following obviously is no more fruitful than aggressive leading. The versatile Muscovite did his own Romantic singing at the keyboard--always warm and sympathetic, virtuosic yet understated, assertive yet poetic. Don't call him an accompanist.
The large audience in the 3,200-seat hall mustered appropriate ovations at the end. The protagonists resisted the temptation, however, to mar the pathos of their performance with inappropriate encores.