Calmly focused, Jesse Blumberg stands gazing into the audience, his eyes agleam with a warmly arresting intelligence. Songs composed in the 1820s have taken root within this man; he is dedicating part of his life to their interpretation. Martin Katz dissolves the silence by sinking his fingers into the piano, and the veil of a song cycle begins to unfurl.

It is not necessary to understand German to enjoy and be moved by a lieder recital. While it’s important to educate yourself and learn the stories to be told, the deepest comprehension really happens when you listen with your heart. If the thought of Franz Schubert’s Winterreise being performed close on the heels of one of the most punishing winters in memory provokes a wry smile, the realities behind the music are sobering. Wilhelm Mueller, whose moody verses describe the Winter Journey, died just short of his thirty-third birthday without ever hearing them set to music. Schubert, equally young, composed the work while gradually perishing from a sexually transmitted disease. “There is no sentimental slush here,” wrote scholar and master vocalist Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau of the Winterreise, “only the naked truth.” The Winter Journey is a psychological slog through the dark night of the soul with only a moon-cast shadow for a companion.

Rejected by his fiancee and her family, a jilted lover shoulders his pack and hikes out of town in the dead of night, stopping to mutter angrily at a weathervane before plodding over the frozen countryside past landmarks recalling happier times. Anyone whose emotional state has ever triggered a trek of this sort knows how it feels to hit the trail driven by feelings so powerful that trails themselves are soon abandoned for stubborn plunges into the thicket. This is a landscape of heart and mind with almost surreal overtones, where linden trees speak, will-o’-the-wisps beckon, a cemetery resembles a small hotel, and crows punctuate the night with their hollow commentary. Come morning, when three suns appear in the sky, our wanderer is witnessing what the old folks call sun dogs. Scientists use the term parhelion to describe a trick of light refracted through diamond dust ice particles dancing in the frigid atmosphere. Schubert and Mueller’s Winter Journey concludes with a scene right out of an early Werner Herzog movie, as the exhausted traveler asks a barefoot elderly homeless man who stands turning the crank of a hurdy-gurdy on the outskirts of town: “Shall I join you? Will you grind the organ while I sing?”

Jesse Blumberg and Martin Katz perform Franz Schubert’s Winterreise at Kerrytown Concert House on May 17.