Opera + Classical Music Features

Why I Love… Winterreise

Melanie Eskenazi guides us to Schubert’s definitive Lockdown Lieder in the latest of our series on private music passions

Sitting in the garden under an apple tree may not be the most evocative place in which to write about Winterreise, but the work has strong associations with the distancing and isolation which many people are experiencing in the present time of coronavirus lockdown. Willhelm Müller’s poems depict a bleak winter in which Nature not only isolates the rejected lover from the rest of the world, but at times seems to conspire against him, and Franz Schubert’s music echoes all their melancholy and despair. Like Lear, the protagonist does not want to sink into madness, but to find some relief from it; unlike the Miller’s lad he does not succumb to a watery death but he trudges on, accompanied by the drehleier of the ‘wunderlicher alter.’ That such a narrative is ultimately life-affirming is the key to our love for the work: like all masterpieces it holds its own fascination even in the midst of existential crisis.

Winterreise is the pinnacle of the Lieder singer’s ambition, so it is no surprise that it has been so frequently recorded, with some singers recording it as many as eight times. Schubert himself sang the songs (the first twelve) “in a voice wrought with emotion” according to his friend Joseph von Spaun, and for many people that is the way in which they should be performed. For Richard Capell, they represent “an outcry of scorched sensibility.” There are so many versions available that one may indulge both in those which echo these feelings, and those which form the bulk of the ‘other,’ less wrought interpretations.

In a 1981 broadcast, John Steane remarks rather splendidly that the influence of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau on subsequent singers was so strong that “other performances are seen as essentially deviants.” This was of course when most of today’s interpreters were children, and before the surge in interest in Lieder which the great baritone had so significant a part in encouraging. It’s a thorny subject – there will always be those who say things like ‘How can you even think that it should be sung by a baritone?’ or ‘Christian Gerhaher is the only singer who gets it right’ so one can do no more than settle on a principle and stick to it. In my case, it is that recordings tend to fall broadly into two groups – those which emphasise vocal beauty or finesse, and those which opt for varying degrees of raw anguish.

Into the former group might fall the urbane Thomas Hampson / Wolfgang Sawallisch, the cool, elegant Dietrich Henschel / Irwin Gage, the consoling warmth of Christian Gerhaher / Gerold Huber and the unfailingly scrupulous Jonas Kaufmann / Helmut Deutsch. The last two partnerships would almost certainly be high on many lists of favourite recordings, but they both leave me cold – and not in the right way. This is a personal view – much as I admire Kaufmann in opera, considering that in roles such as Werther and Don Carlo, he is supreme, his Winterreise is just too studied, albeit with lovely tone and a sublime accompanist.

“Like all masterpieces it holds its own fascination even in the midst of existential crisis.”

At the other end of the spectrum, we have the raw anguish of Peter Schreier / András Schiff, the desolate musing of Ian Bostridge / Thomas Adès, the introspective yet direct Matthias Goerne / Alfred Brendel and the fervid passion of Florian Boesch / Malcolm Martineau, the last with a reading in which, Mark Valencia writes, Boesch “…inhabits the role with such engagement that one almost fears for his wellbeing.” That is finely observed, and is at the heart of this type of interpretation – surely every performance ought to have at least some sense of the singer’s identification with the emotions in these most revealing of songs?  

Towards the end of his life, Fischer-Dieskau wrote that “…the true interpreter… with his heart filled with emotion for what he sings, will transport you into another sphere.” It is this sense of being taken out of oneself which he perfected, not just in a musical sense but in his understanding of the poetry, and it is this which informs the performances I would not want to be without. There are four – two by the great man himself, one of these the second of his recordings with Gerald Moore and the other with Jörg Demus, and the other two by Matthias Goerne with Alfred Brendel, and Florian Boesch with Malcolm Martineau.

You will notice that I always list both singer and pianist, rather than merely stating the singer’s name; more than any other work, Winterreise is a partnership, and it is not only in the singer’s identification with the piece but the level of the pianist’s collaboration which marks out these recordings. Take the Boesch / Martineau, where the accompanist’s daring, on-the-edge playing is completely at one with the baritone’s fervent singing, and the Goerne / Brendel, where the austerity of the playing neither dominates nor follows in the singer’s footsteps. The sense of noble companionship which is achieved in both these partnerships is also evident in both of the Fischer-Dieskau recordings, which remain the standard by which others may be judged.

Goerne / Brendel and Boesch / Martineau come very close, though, and it is indisputable that Goerne’s is the most purely beautiful voice with the most impressive legato line. He is at his best in ‘Frühlingstraum’ where his evocation of joy briefly tasted, ‘Wonne und Seligkeit’ so sweetly recalled, contrasts with the aching sorrow of the final line and Brendel’s desolate, sombre nachspiel. Boesch is similarly dramatic in this song, and even more so with Der Lindenbaum, the only one of the songs which Schubert’s friends liked on first hearing. Martineau’s playing of the vorspiel could not be bettered for its evocation of the rustling of the lime tree’s leaves, and Boesch responds to it with singing of the most aching tenderness in the nostalgic stanzas and that characteristic sense of being beside himself in the more dramatic ones.

Fine as both these versions are, it is still Fischer-Dieskau who has the edge, and the recording with Demus just pips the one with Moore as the all-time best – remember once again, this is a personal choice. The singing is so intimate – he is so close to the microphone that at times the words emerge as if they are personal confidences – and the playing at once so unforced yet sophisticated, that it is possible to say, ‘yes – this is how it should be.’ For some, his emphasis on words is excessive, yet listen to the effect – in Frühlingstraum, ‘Die Augen schliess ich wieder, Noch schlagt das Herz so warm’ – this is not excess but exactly as the poet’s emphasis falls. Schubert understood this so well, and Fischer-Dieskau does them both proud. Gerald Moore, quoting Frank Howes on Solomon, noted that Howes’ words might equally have applied to the genius of Fischer-Dieskau: “Interpretation as demonstrated at this level is seen as fundamentally the same art as composition – the art of creating music.”

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Why I Love… Winterreise