English tenor Allan Clayton’s crystalline tenor and Kate Golla’s well-tempered piano were a picture-perfect combination for Schubert’s Winterreise at Perth Concert Hall on Tuesday.
The coldest night of winter – so far – added frosting to the cake; the work restyled as A Winter’s Journey and paired with Australian artist Fred Williams’ landscapes from Kosciusko’s side and beyond.
Clayton, rough clad and heavily hirsute, fully embodied Schubert’s wandering soul with an earthy charm in sadness and regret, his inner musings given geographical expression by the projected artwork.
Golla’s accompaniment was deftly honed to complement the wanderer, director Lindy Hume co-ordinating the duo with video designer David Bergman and lighting designer Matthew Marshall in a world premiere that will travel to London’s Barbican Centre – a new departure for Musica Viva Australia.
Schubert’s cycle of 24 songs, with words by Wilhelm Muller, tracks a lovelorn soul through frozen wastes; an intense and demanding role for the singer that also leans heavily on piano to set scenes and moods, by turns delicate and lyrical, often bleak.
The graphic counterpoint also helped Clayton build a quasi-operatic experience, exploring the physical space around the piano, in and out of the light, as aids to presentation.
An abstract forest morphed to denser foliage for The Linden Tree, the strains of a romantic ballad strangely familiar across time and distance.
A flourishing of colour introduced Will’o’the’Wisp, piano and voice duetting, the projection lending depth to the drama.
Rest repurposed the piano as the confines of a small house, while Dream of Spring evoked greenery in lyrical piano, the more colourful accompaniment reflected in the art.
Other episodes evoked Loneliness in minor-major mood swings; The Mail Coach, piano channelling military rhythms of a post horn — no letter for the wanderer drawing a frustrated rap on the piano lid; and frost in The Hoary Head, silhouettes of the piano framing Clayton in dazzling white light.
Perhaps the visual highlight was The Crow; piano sparkling like a mountain stream and the wanderer lost among mountain gorges before perspective rolled crazily as if in flight, drawing the audience intimately into the imagery.
Back in the forest, piano notes hung in the air like falling leaves; dogs barked to rumbling low chords; a stormy morning erupted in roseate hues and cold shades of dawn before a house beckoned – a delusional hope of homecoming.
Wild places, a graveyard, the hope of courage and defiance, were finally resolved in pathos.
The Organ Grinder, announced in drone chords, set a folkloric yet melancholy mood. In the busker’s empty plate the wanderer finds solace and acceptance.
“Strange old man, shall I go with you? Shall I sing the songs you play?” he asks.
From the raucous applause and cheers on Tuesday, the answer would have to be “Yes”.