Even in our time, nearly two centuries after its writing, Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin needs no heightened drama to help sell it. Baritone Thomas Meglioranza seemed to know as much Sunday afternoon in a Philadelphia Chamber Music Society performance of the work with pianist Reiko Uchida.
On any scale of dramatic potential, this was an understated interpretation of Schubert’s landmark 65-minute song cycle — and powerful still. The work speaks without any expressive exaggerations. Meglioranza and Uchida did not indulge in extreme dynamics or excessive stretching of pivotal moments. Nothing was delivered in boldface.
Whatever mood-residue the afternoon’s bright sunshine left on listeners entering the American Philosophical Society’s Benjamin Franklin Hall, Schubert transported them to a different place.
The philosophical inquiries of Wilhelm Müller’s poetry raise doubts about reality and the unattainable. The arc covers the journey of an apprentice who yearns for — for what? The miller’s daughter? For love of a different sort? Through 20 songs, our hero’s mind churns. Halfway in, “Shower of Tears” portends his fate: the river calls and tries to “pull me down into its depths.”
The musical imagery in the piano — a churning mill wheel, the rushing river — is obvious enough. But ambiguity comes in layers. Our hero looks at his instrument, a lute, and doubts he can “force it into rhyme.” At the end of this song, “Pause,” we hear that to him, its strumming sounds like “a prelude to new songs.” The line might not have so strongly suggested our hero’s wandering eye without Schubert putting dilemma into sound with a quick alternation between major and minor.
Schubert turns the greenery malevolent in “The Beloved Color,” one song after we are told that nice girls don’t do what the girl of the mill was caught doing (making herself obvious by craning her neck out the window).
Both singer and pianist kept their character sketches within a close family of colors. Early on in the cycle, the sensitive Uchida underlined a marvelous moment where the apprentice asks the river for guidance. “So is this my path?” he asks, but not until the pianist has delivered a subtle hesitation.
Meglioranza had his share of wisely modulated inflections — his characterizations of the boss’ voice and, ever-so-slightly, the girl’s. For the most part, though, his baritone was light and prone to alternating between a simple sound and one warmed to colors more ardent.
If, in your philosophical leanings, you doubt the existence of free will, it wouldn’t have surprised you that the river gets the last word. It forms the apprentice’s coffin, “a blue crystal chamber,” and sings to him: “Weary wanderer, you are home.”
And Schubert? The death-music here is sweet, devoid of any tension. Lulling. Repetitive. Not a trace of regret.
The musicians offered no encore, and heading out into the sunshine with the composer’s musical opioid in your head, you couldn’t help think that a death so beautiful you don’t mind must be the most awful kind.
The next Philadelphia Chamber Music Society song recital, at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Perelman Theater, Broad and Spruce Streets, features bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni and pianist Craig Terry. Information: 215-569-8080 or pcmsconcerts.org.