Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Aldeburgh Festival / Winterreise @ Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Snape

19 June 2011

With every performance of Winterreise, with each new accompanist, Matthias Goerne goes a further step beyond all other interpreters of the work: at Aldeburgh, he and Pierre-Laurent Aimard gave a performance of such daring, intensity and intimacy that its hard to imagine anything more definitive.

I believe that it’s at festivals such as Aldeburgh that certain artists present their boldest interpretations: maybe the environment frees them, or maybe it’s just that out of the confines of the metropolis they are likely to be less troubled by the carpings of the kind of critics who seem to spend most of their review paragraphs complaining about how the singer has gone too far / shows off / ought to lighten up / should have a stab at Satie, and so on. Fat chance, and thank goodness for it.

As with their Schöne Müllerin, Goerne and Aimard do not give you an easy time: ‘Gute Nacht’ is no winsome farewell but a bitter turning away from a hopeless situation, and ‘Gefrorne Tränen’ brings no delicately dropping tears but jagged stabs of pain, Aimard’s piano as searing as Goerne’s shattering ‘Ganzen Winters Eis’.

In ‘Erstarrung’ most singers tell you that they’d like to kiss the ground as if they were referring to kissing a puppy Goerne sounds far more likely to devour it. The single word ‘kussen’ from him was so brutal that when ‘Wo find ich eine Blte’ came, we were hardly surprised that the tone was despairing rather than delicate.

No one would have expected a sweetly nostalgic ‘Der Lindenbaum’ after that, but even I was taken aback by the bleakness of this interpretation yet, they still managed to fulfil Lotte Lehmann’s wish for it to be sung with the greatest simplicity.

Goerne and Aimard clearly see ‘Frühlingstraum‘ as the pivotal song of the cycle, more of a nightmare than a dream, the power of ‘Und denke den Traume nach’ as shocking as ‘Die Augen schliess ich wieder’ was heart-rending, with Aimard’s desolate nachspiel offering no hope at all.

Given the bleakness of their interpretation, it is all the more astonishing that Goerne and Aimard still emphasize the grandeur of the music, nowhere more so than in ‘Das Wirtshaus’ and ‘Die Nebensonnen’. In the former, the noble, canon-like melody underpins the suppressed anguish of the poem, the final lines ferocious in their despair, and in the latter, the rage of the preceding songs found its right resolution in singing of absolute purity. It was remarkable that, even though Goerne fined the last line down to a hushed, silken thread of sound, they still managed to respect Schubert’s ‘Nicht zu langsam’.

At the end of this journey of anguish, rage and despair, we had a performance of ‘Der Leiermann’ which left us contemplating not only the wanderer’s question but all the other unanswered questions posed by this music. T.S. Eliot aspired to a condition of complete simplicity / costing not less than everything Goerne and Aimard here achieved just such a condition, Schubert’s music laid bare before us as if we were hearing it for the first time.

Unsurprisingly, the performance was greeted with a stunned silence, followed by prolonged and emotional applause. Someone said that she wanted to go and throw herself in the Alde right there and then: I think most of us toyed with that, but we thought the better of it and confined ourselves to ambling back to Snape in a state of heightened awareness, not only of Schubert’s genius but of the power of two great musicians.

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