Is there such a thing as ‘the’ Winterreise? Of course not, since it is true of all masterpieces that they lend themselves to a variety of interpretations whilst still retaining their individuality; however, Simon Keenlyside and Emanuel Ax come as close as any performers today to capturing the sense of Schubert’s work as the journey of an angry, despairing soul. The wanderer plods on, but this is not the kind of Winterrreise where one feels that the cycle is more hopeful than Die Schöne Müllerin, since it is resignation to his lonely fate which marks out Keenlyside’s singing.
If you’re looking for a version of the work which expresses “was uns im tiefsten inneren bewegt,” then you’d be better off with Kaufmann and Deutsch – but whereas that interpretation, beautiful as it was, left me virtually unmoved, this one was capable of shaking to the core with its direct, raw yet still poetic singing. ‘Gute Nacht’ established the tone with no holding back – even at ‘Schreib’ im Vorübergehen / An’s Tor dir gute Nacht’ the tone was muscular, raw and powerful, yet still harbouring regret. In ‘Erstarrung’ the pleas of ‘Wo find ich eune Blüte’ were moving without mawkishness, and in ‘Der Lindenbaum’ the dreamer’s reflections were expressed with a depth of sorrow beyond the merely nostalgic.
The sheer rage at the end of ‘Rückblick’ and ‘Rast’ might have yielded to a tone of sweet melancholy for ‘Frühlingstraum,’ but it was not to be, with both singer and pianist etching a despairing picture which was just as sharp as the imagined leaves; intriguingly, the final stanza was the emotional core of the evening, the hopeless questions left unanswered by the piano’s even, steady final phrases. You can generally judge how a singer follows the thread of Schubert’s imagination by the statement ‘Habe ja doch nichts begangen, Dass ich Menschen sollte scheu’n’ (What wrong have I done that I should shun mankind?) in ‘Der Wegweiser’ – Keenlyside sings it plaintively yet with the sense that this is not the forlorn outcast crying out at his rejection, but a man consumed by outrage. Emanuel Ax finely echoes that sense of raw power with playing completely attuned to the singer.
The last four songs were taken in a less emphatic way, appropriate for a man who has come to realize, if not entirely accept his fate. ‘Die Nebensonnen’ was less a reflection of a man gradually losing his sense of relationship with the world, than a kind of prayer to the inevitability of what is to come, the vorspiel delicate rather than ponderous, and ‘Der Leiermann’ seemed more than usually bleak in its invitation. As elsewhere in the cycle, Keenlyside sometimes sacrificed tonal beauty in the service of interpretation, and Ax proved the ideal partner in these moments, where we are most aware of the work as, in Capell’s phrase, “an outcry of scorched sensibility.”
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org.uk.