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Seen and Heard International Recital Review

Schubert Winterreise: Kurt Moll (bass), Ken Noda (piano), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 27 April 2005 (BJ)

It is never a pleasant experience for a critic to watch the audience around him accord a near-unanimous standing ovation to a performance he has himself found wanting. When people come up to you afterwards with the inevitable question “How did you enjoy it?,” it feels so curmudgeonly to respond, “Not much”; yet to simulate agreement with the questioner’s obvious enthusiasm is intellectual dishonesty – dishonesty, moreover, that is bound to be detected in retrospect when his considered opinions are published for all to read.

These reflections are occasioned by the performance of Winterreise given on 27 April under the auspices of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society by Kurt Moll and Ken Noda. Moll has been for years an artist of commanding stature, a Sarastro to reckon with, and an imposing interpreter of such Wagner roles as Daland and Pogner. He is still, I should emphasize at the outset, possessed of a major instrument, a true bass that is at once rich, lustrous, and well focused – this was not one of those cases of a singer continuing to give voice when there is little left to give – though his intonation has clearly grown a shade inexact in recent years, and his diction occasionally a touch lazy. The trouble was rather that this Winterreise sounded, indeed, like Wagner rather than Schubert. It was on too gigantic a scale for the intimate, hermetic world of an intensely introverted work in which only one song, Im Dorfe, takes note of any feeling or predicament other than the central character’s own.

The impression of excess was intensified by the contribution of Moll’s keyboard partner. Ken Noda is a pianist of formidable gifts. Passages like the trills evocative of stormy wind in Die Wetterfahne emerged under his hands with positively bloodcurdling vividness, and phrasing was never less than eloquent. Noda is full of ideas, and many of them are genuinely sensitive and insightful – but they are presented with an emphasis that would be more appropriate coming from a concerto soloist than from a colleague in the essentially chamber-musical enterprise that is the German Lied. And an almost unremitting tendency to over-pedal simply added to the excessive hugeness of the sound-picture painted.

With regard to volume, incidentally, I also found Moll’s handling of dynamics both predictable and far too uniform from one song to the next, to the point where, for the first time in my half-century’s love affair with this greatest of song-cycles, I almost began to suspect it of being a rather tedious work. That, however, must surely be laid at the door of the performers rather than at the composer’s. So while I shared with my fellow listeners their pleasure at the many arresting, even beautiful, moments that Moll and Noda gave us, I could not go along with the audience’s evident approval of their performance as a whole.

Bernard Jacobson



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)