Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Winterreise: Philip Langridge and David Owen Norris @ Wigmore Hall, London

22 June 2006

Philip Langridge

Philip Langridge

The Winterreise (Winter Journey) is no easy entertainment. Wilhelm Muller’s 20 poems take us on a journey (either real or psychological) with a very unhappy, lonely man. The poems recall futile hopes for happiness and marriage; death is never far.

Schubert composed his Winterreise song-cycle to Muller’s poems in 1828, in the year of his untimely death from syphilis. From Schubert’s correspondence we know that he was aware of his physical condition. The tragedy of Schubert’s illness (and the tragedy of his death at the age of 31) is inevitably linked to the Winterreise. Nevertheless, this song cycle is more about lost love than death.

Philip Langridge delivered a truly wonderful performance of the whole cycle. He was dramatic but disciplined; his delivery of words and emotions was exemplary. I was amazed at the skill and expertise with which opera singer Langridge scaled down his expressivity to suit these short songs as well as the Wigmore Hall’s small, intimate stage. His German diction was crystal clear, and his vocal control made the 65-70 minute-long cycle sound easy.

Pianist David Owen Norris left a mixed impression. To be more precise, I should refer to fortepianist David Owen Norris. He played a fortepiano (with a wooden frame), which was a copy of a Graf instrument from Schuberts time. I am not sure, though, if fortepianists in Schubert’s time would have hit the instrument quite as hard as Norris did from time to time in this performance. On the other hand, there were marked sforzandos (accents) in my score which Norris did not always observe. I was also troubled by his frequent rubatos (rhythmic flexibilities) which threatened to distort rhythm. I am sure that this is a deliberate interpretation as Norris does not look like someone who treats music without respect.

Nevertheless, I am puzzled why for instance he used so much rhythmic freedom in the final song (Der Leiermann or The Organ-grinder) where the piano part represents the mechanical hurdy-gurdy.

Though clearly two artists of value and humility, Philip Langridge and David Owen Norris seemed to me like chalk and cheese. Langridge delivered his vocal line with enviable posture while Norris bent over the keyboard and dealt with the music in his own way. I would have loved Langridge to tackle both the vocal and the instrumental part. This may be a technical impossibility, but I recall Langridge’s wonderful performance of the composer in Janacek’s opera Osud in 1984. In that performance at the English National Opera, Langridge had an aria where he accompanied himself on the piano. It was a real coup! In that year the Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Individual Performance of the Year in a New Opera Production went to Philip Langridge for ENO’s Osud at the London Coliseum.

Wigmore Hall recorded this concert for their Wigmore Hall Live CD label. Notwithstanding my reservations, I am looking forward to listening to this release.

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Winterreise: Philip Langridge and David Owen Norris @ Wigmore Hall, London