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Breslik's Sweltering, Paradisical Müllerin

Not having been able to make Christian Gerhaher’s Schoenberg-Berg-Beethoven recital at the Munich Opera Festival, I had to get my quality Liederabend in the countryside. A Schöne Müllerin with Slovak tenor Pavol Breslik laid waiting in Wildbad Kreuth, a spa for five hundred years and now a convention center run by the CSU-affiliated Hanns Seidel Foundation, nestled between the Tegernsee valley and the Tyrolean Achen valley, picturesquely surrounded by mountains on all sides.

The most scenic approach from Munich, short of a day-trip with bikes, is surely by train—bringing the bicycles—to Tegernsee, then bike the last eight gorgeous miles on dedicated bike paths along the Weissachau river via Rottach-Egern and Kreuth. A few cows on the grounds give scant notice to the visitor of the annual Oleg Kagan Festival and resume their grazing activities with poise.

It’s an early warm evening as the audience, a charming-peculiar assembly of local grandees and culture-travelers, file into the festival hall where a little later pianist Amir Katz and Pavol Breslik climb on the makeshift stage for the Schubert that Breslik finally tackles, in intimate surroundings. A year earlier he still hadn’t though himself ready for Schubert, perhaps thinking himself too impetuous: “When I sing Schumann or Dvořák or Liszt, I just want to eat my heart out! I always let the music speak first.” (SZ) As soon as he starts, it’s clear that his miller’s apprentice is a very serious young man about hiking! Breslik digs into the music, with believable involvement, in a throw-back heart-on-sleeve romantic way. The entire performance, if one could extract the adjective’s patronizing undertone, could be summarized as adorable.

Breslik works his way through song and song, high-strung, which one might not like, except that it’s so well done, so secure, so well judged, well-breathed (no audible signs at all of the recent illness that nixed the planned de-facto dress rehearsal in Elmau a few days before), so secure and so honest that it’s impossible not to fall in love with the performance. What helped was the wonderful diction, the impeccable pronunciation and enunciation, further adorned with the immediate, personal touch of Breslik’s most charming, subtle greater Austro-Hungarian accent.

Even the struggle—Breslik, sweating, strained, concentrated, and occasionally tense, clutched tightly into the wood of the Steinway with both hands wide to the sides, self-crucifying, until it was smudged from nook to curved end—was endearing. I couldn’t help but think of the parallels and difference to Simon Keenlyside’s Winterreise in Salzburg a year ago (not much helped by Pierre-Laurent Aimard), whose discomfort was mistaken for earnest interpretive choice, and whose toil—tone-deaf critical reception notwithstanding—tanked Schubert.

The wilder, the more emotive and extroverted the song, the easier it seems for Breslik. In his extraordinary powerful “Ungeduld” the opera-experienced voice came in particularly handy, communicating intense pain with great immediacy, puppy-like urgency. The audience, well aware of the breach of protocol that would entail, came very close to rewarding the visibly exhausted singer with impromptu applause. Breslik meanwhile writhed and wriggled to unbutton his Nehru jacket. As it got hotter and more humid, and the intervals between drinks of water for the melting tenor decreased, Breslik apologetically asked if he could shed the jacket and continue shirt-sleeved… “looks a little worn, I’m afraid”. Eventually he asked if anyone minded if he opened the windows for a while. “No one will be bothered outside, if we leave them open, do you think? Yes, the birds maybe…” and proceeded to open the French doors to the terrace himself. Sure enough, one or two forest birds joined in for “Trockne Blumen”.

Amir Katz provided a calm, unfazed, equally perspiring foundation on which Breslik delivered his Schubert, which ever more felt like eavesdropping in on something very personal and inescapably personable. The raspy “R’s” in “Gute Ruh, gute Ruh!” of “Des Baches Wiegenlied”, indicated the end a long journey that Breslik had lived through before some 600 eyes and ears, arriving there with in genuine exhaustion. He was wildly, enthusiastically rewarded by the silver and light-blue haired Bavarian Hinterland audience.

It’s worth traveling to hear Breslik anyway, but were he appear at the Oleg Kagan Festival again next year, I know I’ll be pumping the tires and checking the breaks well in advance.

Picture of Amir Katz and Pavol Breslik © Klaus J. Kalchschmid