Bachtrack, 28 September 2023
Von Robert Levine
Schubert: Der Doppelgänger, New York, Park Avenue Armory, ab 22.9.2023
Kaufmann and Deutsch shine in Claus Guth's dramatized Schwanengesang
Schubert’s Schwanengesang unlike his Winterreise and Die schöne Müllerin has no narrative structure. It contains, rather, the last songs Schubert composed; the title Schwanengesang (Swansong) was given to these songs by his publisher as an implication of the composer’s imminent death. He was only 31 years old but terminally ill and he died in 1828 a few months before their publication. The texts are by Heinrich Heine and Ludwig Rellstab.

Most Lieder singers enjoy the intimacy of merely singer and piano in the face of an audience. Because the texts are as important as the music, no frills are the preferred manner of approach. With personal songs about the loss of a loved one, existential angst, feeling homeless or overwhelmed by the weight of the world, not to mention coming face to face with a Doppelgänger, a double of yourself, a ghostly parallel, which, folklorically was an omen of death, one might think that the mammoth Drill Hall in the whole-square-block Seventh Regiment Armory was precisely the wrong place for such songs. But director Claus Guth, expanding on the song Kriegers Ahnung (Warrior's foreboding), in which a lovesick soldier, encamped with his comrades, sings of how he fears the prospect of dying, or losing his courage, in battle, clearly disagrees.

To this end, the Drill Hall was set up as an army hospital – one would guess World War 1 – with 62 cots, neatly aligned. As the audience enters, some of the beds are occupied and fluorescently lit from above, giving off a ghostly glow. At times the soldiers who are left twitch and turn in their disturbed sleep. War is hell. Center of the hall is the lone piano, with the pianist, Helmut Deutsch, seated. A quiet but persistent hum – almost a drone – is audible, In fact, throughout, to supply interstitial material, German composer and sound designer Mathis Nitschke has been employed to supply some eerie, troubled sounds, between songs. It is, presumably, his idea to have Deutsch thrum on the strings inside the piano.

Suddenly a soldier sits up straight in bed – tenor Jonas Kaufmann, one of many soldiers with a story to tell. We watch and listen as he goes through torments of memories and premonitions; he races around the huge hall singing of a lost love, he flails, he collapses. This will be the last hour of his life. Six ghostly, rigid nurses patrol. The other soldiers move about, often zombie-like, often executing modern dance moves. Beds are shuffled and bedclothes strewn, a notion of battle. The bleak setting is by Michael Levine; the effective, sometimes startling lighting is by Urs Schönebaum. Midway through the show – after the Rellstab songs and before the Heine – Deutsch plays the second movement of Schubert’s Sonata, D960, a sombre, evocative ten minutes of repose.

Kaufmann, who has not been in New York since 2017 and who has, furthermore, been canceling some performances in London last summer, was in fine voice. His tendency to croon when not singing at medium or full voice was not in evidence, and though he was “lightly amplified”, the voice sounded intact and healthy. His Ständchen was lovely, sung while lying down, with pleasing, clear tone. Der Atlas brought forth Wagnerian tone and almost unbearable grief. Ihr Bild was gentle, with spun pianissimi. And at the final song, Der Doppelgänger, the side doors of the hall were opened to the street and Kaufmann went out seeking... what? He came back horrified, a copy of himself a step or two behind while Deutsch lingered on dissonances, making the experience even more disturbing.

Deutsch, favoring, along with his collaborators, slowish tempi, offered up all of Schubert’s stunning tone-painting – the breezes of In der Ferne, for example – and otherwise simply beautiful, considerate accompaniment.

And so. Yes, Kaufmann is a great actor and a great singer, and his Schwanengesang, in this context, was more dramatic than most great singers dare attempt. It didn’t always suit the obsessively, inward nature of each song’s neurotic issue. It remains an oddity, sui generis, rather than a Lieder recital, a noble and intelligent attempt to turn the songs into a cycle, but I found Nitschke’s occasional rumblings intrusive. As a great admirer of both singer and pianist, I enjoyed the event a great deal, but I’d love to hear them perform a recital evening of Schubert’s last songs. Period.

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