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Posted on Sat, Apr 17, 2010 : 1:34 a.m.

Schubert song cycles get powerful showcase at Kerrytown Concert House

By Susan Isaacs Nisbett

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Martin Katz, left, and Jesse Blumberg

photo courtesy of Kerrytown Concert House

The stars just won’t align for the hero of Schubert’s “Die Schöne Müllerin.” In the final song of 20 constituting this great Schubert song cycle, the hero, having lost the lovely miller’s daughter of the title to a rival, meets his end by the brook that has sung to him and led him to her. But Friday evening at Kerrytown Concert House, the stars aligned perfectly for Schubert, and for the song cycle itself, which received a vivid, finely paced reading from baritone Jesse Blumberg and pianist Martin Katz.

There was a sense of anticipation in the house for this concert, which kicked off a weekend that brings Blumberg and Katz back for a Schubert master class this afternoon and Sunday for “Winterreise,” the second of Schubert’s two song-cycle masterworks.

Even without being the start of a terrific trifecta, the concert would have had a sense of occasion. Though Blumberg, 30, was a graduate student in music at the University of Michigan, for most in the audience, he was an unknown, performing of course, with one of the most famous of today’s collaborative pianists, Katz. And of course, most of the time when we hear Katz, a U-M faculty member who is partner to some of the greatest singers of our age (he’s at Carnegie next week, to play mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade’s New York farewell concert, for example) it’s in a much larger hall, or in another city.

Finally, most of the time when we hear Schubert’s songs, it’s in a much larger hall, too, a “chamber-music” space for, say, a mere 600-1,200 people. They cry out for the more intimate, living-room-like spaces for which Schubert conceived them, and how they did profit, in Friday’s performance, from our being able to practically touch them in the small KCH room.

I suppose that might not have been the case had Blumberg not been such an appealing advocate for the songs, vocally and dramatically. Although always in character and always acting within the bounds of art-song propriety, he seemed to make eye contact with the audience: he was singing this tale of love, unrequited — his tale of love, unrequited — to us, and yes, we were to listen up.

That was easy. While occasionally Blumberg seemed to be pushing too hard in loud passage, or, conversely, needing just a hair’s-breadth more support under his soft singing, for the most part his was beautiful vocalism, lyrical where it should be, impassioned or agitated when it needed to be, shaded like the forest sheltering his beloved and his beloved brook.

In a performance that conveyed all the rushing emotions of new love and the devastation of love lost, the high point, perhaps, was the 16th song, “Die liebe Farbe” (“The Favorite Color”), where the hero sings of the color green — once his dearest color and now the cruelest reminder of his failed courtship. It is the color of the hunter who has stolen the miller’s daughter’s affections.

In Blumberg’s rendition, this song about color had eerily none — it had the whiteness of emotion drained, of unbelieving blankness. Meanwhile, at the piano, Katz turned the ostinato figure in the accompaniment into the equivalent of that “colorless” sound of Blumberg’s. A short hesitation in the song’s minuscule postlude seemed like one more stab to the heart.

As Katz pointed out in brief remarks before the performance, “Die Schöne Müllerin” has five protagonists — the hero, the miller, his daughter, the hunter, and the brook, which the piano portrays. A river doesn’t just run through Schubert’s cycle, it ripples, it eddies, it sings and mourns and consoles. Schubert’s writing is highly pictorial, and, well, Katz is a painterly pianist. Happily Blumberg is a painterly singer, too — he made you see the scenes Wilhelm Müller paints in his poems, just as he made us feel the hero’s emotions.

This afternoon’s master class, 2 p.m., is free and open to the public, though reservations are accepted. Sunday’s concert is at 4 p.m. For reservations, call Kerrytown Concert House, (734) 769-2999, or check online at KCH is located at 415 N. Fourth Ave,