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La Scena Musicale Online Reviews and News / Critiques et Nouvelles

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A Youthful and Satisfying Die Winterreise Alexander Dobson, baritone Yannick Nézet-Séguin, piano Saturday, February 3, 2007 Heliconian Hall, Toronto

By Joseph So February 13, 2007

The Mount Everest of German song cycles, Schubert’s Die Winterreise places daunting demands on the singer. To do it justice, the soloist must have the requisite beauty of tone, a two-octave range backed by a solid technique, an innate musicality, not to mention the ability to commit the huge 24-song cycle – about eighty minutes of non-stop singing – to memory. Sometimes, an insecure singer would have the song text or notes hidden in the piano, but I draw the line when it comes to performances given with an intermission, as the mood is broken. Then there is the not so simple matter of communication – the singer must have something to say. On a recent, suitably wintry evening, an audience made up mostly of vocal cognoscenti, including a liberal sprinkling of singers, braved the elements and was rewarded with a superlative Die Winterreise. In an age of rampant commercialism, it is gratifying to see that the lieder recital genre is still alive and well, albeit not in the cavernous, Roy Thomson, but in the much more intimate, indeed preferable, surroundings of Heliconian Hall, capacity 110.

The protagonist on this occasion was baritone Alexander Dobson. I have heard him on a number of occasions, including a recent Amadeus Choir Messiah and small roles with Opera Ontario. My previous impression was that of a well schooled, intelligent and musical singer with a fine voice, but it didn’t prepare me for what he could do with Schubert’s masterpiece. One is loath to make comparisons, but of the many, many Winterreise I have heard the last forty years, Dobson’s ranked highly. I understand this was his sixth or seventh go at this piece, although he had not sung it for five years and previous outings were when he was a student. Putting it simply, I find his voice to be absolutely perfect for this cycle, and overall, his performance was very impressive. First of all, he has the technical arsenal to do the cycle justice – there were no vocal compromises, everything was given its full measure. His beautiful and expressive baritone is quite dark, almost that of a bass-baritone when he decides to use a darker coloration in certain phrases, yet the high tessitura of some of the songs hold no terror for him. His passionate singing of ‘Erstarrung’, quite a difficult song for low voices, was fluid and supple, full of ecstasy and pain. He committed the cycle to memory, and there were no lapses that I was able to detect. He had the stamina to do it all without a break, not even a sip of water! Other than a couple of times when he lagged behind the piano, there were no musical slip-ups to speak of, which is more than I can say when it comes to some of the stars who have attempted this piece in Toronto in the recent years.

Dobson’s interpretation is powerful in a youthful, extroverted, heart-on-sleeve, dramatic, even operatic sort of way, appropriate for a singer still in his early 30’s. This is not to say he blasted his way through the cycle – quite the contrary, he had exemplary sensitivity and nuance in his delivery. He is still very much in the bloom of youth at this point in his artistic journey. With age and experience, his interpretation is bound to take on greater chiaroscuro and introspection. He handled the many changes of mood well; and I sensed a genuine and heart-felt connection to the music. He was helped in no small way by conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin at the keyboard. In town for his COC debut conducting Faust, Nézet-Séguin, who had worked with Dobson when the singer was at Montreal Opera, decided to spend his day off playing his first Winterreise. One would never have guessed that it was his first stab at the piece – his playing was fresh, crisp, assured, well paced, and above all very much alive, even when faced with a piano that was not up to the high standards of the major concert halls. Very much a singer’s conductor, Nézet-Séguin was ever the supportive colleague, breathing the music with the soloist. Kudos to him for not doing anything flashy to take the spotlight away, yet he was always there to offer sympathetic support. The eighty minutes went by in such a flash that I almost didn’t want it to end. Let’s hope there will be many more opportunities to hear these two young artists collaborate in the future.

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