In the mountain range of German art songs, spanning the middle ages to modern times, Franz Schubert’s Winterreise (Winter Journey) stands out as one of the pinnacles — snow-covered and bleak at a distance, yet beautiful and dramatic to behold.

A deeply emotional cycle of 24 songs completed shortly before the composer’s death in 1828, Winterreise will be performed in its entirety Sunday, Dec. 12 at the First Congregational Church in West Tisbury by baritone David Behnke and pianist David Rhoderick, two stalwarts of the Island’s classical music community.

“It’s probably … the most challenging of all the great works of German song,” Mr. Behnke told the Gazette Monday, speaking by phone from his West Tisbury home on a day of rest from rehearsing.

“It is so introspective, and … Schubert was so specific as to what he wanted, in terms of dynamics and phrasing and where to breathe and time signatures — much more so than anything else he wrote,” Mr. Behnke said.

“He seemed determined to make sure performances of this particular piece would be exactly the way he wanted them to be,” continued Mr. Behnke, who first sang the work as an undergraduate in the 1970s.

“When you’re 20, that can be a little off-putting,” he said.

The piece is technically and emotionally demanding for the singer and the pianist, both performers acknowledged. — Ray Ewing

The younger Mr. Behnke, who would go on to earn a master’s degree in opera performance from the Yale School of Music, also found Winterreise too dark and restrained.

“It’s very cerebral; it’s very contained,” he told the Gazette. “I was much more attracted to pieces that were fast and flashy and dramatic and showed off my technique and all that.”

Italian opera and Schubert’s earlier lieder were more to his taste in those days. “Die schöne müllerin was a little showier, and Erlkönig — there’s a play right within that song. You get to play characters.”

But with age and experience has come an enhanced appreciation of Winterreise, said Mr. Behnke, who chose the work for Sunday’s concert benefiting the church.

Based on a series of poems by Wilhelm Müller, the 75-minute song cycle follows a broken-hearted narrator whose sweetheart has married a wealthier man. From her garden gate to the town wall, he roams through a wintry village where every sight and sound only reminds him of his ruined hopes. At last, he finds a fellow outcast — a ragged street musician, cranking a hurdy-gurdy as no one listens — and accepts his own outsider status.

It was the dying Schubert’s final testament, and Mr. Behnke now sees the composer’s struggle with mortality behind the words and music.

“I find this not depressing but really uplifting now. It’s examining death and loss and lack of fulfillment in a very positive way,” he said. “The [narrator], in the course of the 24 songs, comes to grips with it. He rails against it; he wishes it were otherwise; he tries to make it otherwise and finally, at the end, resigns himself to the fact that life is what it is. That, to me, is a deeply reassuring and uplifting sentiment.”

And even in the utmost depths of his despair, the narrator never grows suicidal, Mr. Behnke said.

“There are times when he’s obviously longing for death, but he never overtly tries to make it happen.”

Schubert also lightens the mood from time to time, bringing forth major keys that gleam briefly in the light of the narrator’s memory.

“He has moments where hope glimmers; he thinks of times when he was happy,” Mr. Behnke said.

Performing Winterreise is both technically and emotionally demanding — not only for the singer, but for the pianist as well, said Mr. Behnke, noting that the famed 20th-century tenor Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau recorded the cycle with concert pianists including Murray Perahia and Alfred Brendel.

The performance is a fundraiser for the church. — Ray Ewing

“They are full participants in the story telling,” said Mr. Behnke, who frequently collaborates with Mr. Rhoderick. The two have performed Schubert’s Dichterliebe cycle multiple times on the Vineyard, but are tackling Winterreise for the first time.

“They both are complete partnerships between the piano and the vocalist,” Mr. Behnke said.

Although it’s far from traditional Christmas-season concert fare, Mr. Behnke said, Winterreise strikes him as an appropriate offering this year.

“Coming out, but really not out, of the pandemic, and all of the loss — not only in terms of people who have died, but of our personal freedom and all the things we took for granted that have been put on hold over these last 20 months — it just spoke to me,” he said.

“This was the right time to tackle this one.”

Davide Behnke and David Rhoderick perform Schubert’s Winterreise Dec. 12 at 3 p.m. at the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury. Tickets will be sold at the door and students are admitted free.