I watched the eighth annual Schubertiade on Feb 4, 2021 (it was streamed on Jan 31, 2021). The Schubertiade is an annual concert that my dear friends Martha Fischer and Bill Lutes have done in Madison, WI, a celebration of Franz Schubert, always scheduled sometime around Schubert’s birthday, January 31st.
They opened with “Der Einsame,” with Martha singing and Bill playing the piano. Martha sang like a dream, classic Lieder singing at its very finest. And Bill played with great warmth and flavor. It was a special treat watching him do the frequent hand-crossings in the song.
Schubert gave a little welcome to the concert and overview of its purpose. This particular concert was called a “Rückblick,” a “look back” in Schubert’s native German. The next song was a song was a look back on ancient Greece, “Die Götter Griechenlands,” sung by Cheryl Bensman Rowe and played by Martha. This song was accompanied by photos taken by and assembled by Katrin Talbot. They added a great deal. Cheryl sounded great and she and Martha had palpable chemistry. I should mention that I know many of these people from my years in Madison, so I’ll often call them by their first names.
Next up was baritone Michael Roemer sang “Gruppe aus dem Tartarus.” What a voice and what a hunk! I want to see and hear more of this dude, he was something else. Bill played with power and sensitivity.
Bill introduced the next three songs, songs of nature. “Der Wachtelschlag” was sung by Jennifer D’Agostino. D’Agostino has a ripe voice and a winning stage manner. Martha’s playing was full of sparkle. “Liane,” was sung by Daniel O’Dea. The word that came to mind was “limpid,” always a good choice when it comes to Lieder. I loved the flexibility of Bill’s playing in terms of tempo and phrasing. This song also had photos by Katrin Talbot. The final song of the set was one of the most famous German art songs, “Kennst du das Land?,” one of the *Mignon* songs. It was sung by Jamie-Rose Guarrine. I heard Jamie-Rose in a couple of UW Opera productions back in the 90s and knew that Bill and Martha were impressed with her development as an artist, so I was especially curious to hear her. She sang with confidence and authority and her voice was gleaming and expressive. Martha’s playing was just plain perfect.
Bill and Martha introduced the F minor Fantasy for four-hand piano, a piece they’d played since they were first together. Martha said it’s one of the greatest pieces for four-hand piano. Bill’s final comment brought a tear to my eye: “Schubert gives us so much love and courage in his sad music, it’s so beautiful, but also quite consoling.”
Their playing was everything you could want. It was grand, tender, and nimble, with subtle but potent changes in mood. It was delightful seeing close-ups of their hands and their faces. This is one of the advantages of a concert happening online - - you miss the energy and <<frisson>> of being in the room with the performers and the music, but the trade-off is you have these filmic moments that you wouldn’t have in the hall.
Next were three songs of love and longing from *Schwanengesang,* a song cycle that was published after Schubert’s death. “Frühlingssehnsucht” was sung by Julia Rottmayer, another singer I knew from the 90s when she was a student. What a thrill to hear a singer I had always liked having matured into an artist I admire! Martha’s playing was full of flutter and fire. The ending of this song was a surprise, it took a few unexpected harmonic and vocal turns. “Ständchen,” one of Schubert’s most famous songs, was sung by Sarah Brailey. Her singing was wonderfully smooth and Bill’s playing was delightfully dry but still full of that Schubertian longing and wistfulness. Wesley Dunnagan sang “Ihr Bild.” He has a particular color to his voice, perfect for German rep. He would be a dreamy Tamino in *The Magic Flute.* Bill brought out all of the brooding drama in the song.
The final group of songs was billed as “three songs of friendship, community, and communication,” themes that are at the front of mind during the pandemic. “Am Fenster” was sung by my friend Mimmi Fulmer. Her performance was filled with all of her experience of singing Lieder, ripe with expression and subtlety. Bill’s playing was varied and so expressive.
Bill introduced “Epistel ‘An Herrn Josef von Spaun, Assessor in Linz” as being in a “mock tragic style, a parody of grand opera.” It was sung by Emily Birsan, a soprano who arrived in Madison just after I left. I’d heard raves about her for years but had never heard her before. What a voice and this song was a real showpiece for her, lots of opportunities for display. Martha seemed to choose to play it pretty straight, which was a smart choice, it left the drama to Birsan and the song itself. Talbot's photo montage during this song was particularly amusing.
Paul Rowe sang “Die Taubenpost” another song from *Schwanengesang.* I’ve heard Rowe many times and have always loved the warmth and beauty of his singing. Martha had the same warmth and beauty in her playing.
The nearly final song was one of Bill’s favorite Schubert pieces, his setting of the 23rd Psalm. It’s written for four women, and the women in this performance were Marie McManama, Sara Guttenberg, Martha Fischer, and Mimmi Fulmer. They sounded fantastic together, they had a gorgeous blend and had a unity of purpose. Bill played with all the love he has for this piece. We had another extraordinary photo montage by Talbot during this song.
They ended with the song that always ends the Schubertiade, “An die Musik,” Schubert’s ode to music, sung by all of the singers from a previous Schubertiade and played so beautifully by Bill. The audience is always encouraged to sing along and of course those of us at home were welcomed to sing. I was unable to sing because I was weeping!
The whole concert is on YouTube: