Schubert, Die Winterreise, Ian Bostridge, tenor, Wenwen Du, piano, Playhouse, April 15, 2015

As evidenced by Ian Bostridge’s new book, Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession, there can be few lieder singers with such a close personal identification with Schubert’s great masterpiece.  He has championed it for a good number of years but what has always stood out is just how sharply communicative and beautifully thought out is his reading, and the sheer complexity he reveals in this supremely intimate experience. The singer performed Die Winterreise with Leif Ove Andsnes for the Vancouver Recital Society in 2005, and recorded it for EMI at the same time.  He also performed it with a variety of pianists including Mitsuko Uchida thereafter, and this January with Thomas Adès in London. One of the differences here was the presence of young Vancouver-based Wenwen Du as accompanist, since she often added warmth to the otherwise fragile proceedings, casting a slightly different feeling over the work’s whole.    While I am sure that Bostridge’s interpretation has remained pretty much intact over the past few years, I somehow ended up with a much greater appreciation of just how profound and beautiful much of this music is.  This was a great performance of supreme concentration: the puzzle is to establish exactly why it turned out the way it did, why a work so dark could produce such a rich, almost life-enhancing, outcome.

We live in an era of ‘theatrical’ performances of this magnificent song cycle, and even criticsnow gravitate to particularly chilling traversals, spending considerable time judging just how well the performers convey the mental and physical deterioration in the final twelve songs, and in particular in the last five. There may be moments where hope and recovery are recognized but the critical template seemingly suggests that the singer and pianist need to find a truly vivid and tangible sense of withering away to be successful.  Perhaps this is all too simple and too much our own reconstruction of what we would like to see: the text does not automatically imply a progression of this type, and there is little reason that this work should be indulged in as a vehicle for melodramatic colour.

Over the years, some commentators have indeed thought that Ian Bostridge’s performances of Die Winterreise were too theatrical.  Yet Bostridge does not really impose dramatic, larger-than-life, effects on the music; he has always coordinated his extremes of expression with the line of the music and its exact textual implications.  Certainly, his interpretation is intense, but all his little swoops, slides and dynamic punctuations are there largely because he understands the two sides of what the term ‘narrative’ implies: one as a (composed) ‘outside’ story-teller, the other as a participant in the situation, actually feeling the pain, anger and so on.  The singer artfully captures how these two sides interact and sometimes collide.   At the same time, I do think that the reading witnessed here was more settled and naturally involving than his 2005 recording which, in retrospect, is sometimes on the studied side, trying almost too hard to find meaning and expression.

The opening “Gute Nacht’ had a good purposive stride to it, not softening dynamics for the last stanza, but still managing to find an interesting ‘floating’ quality towards the end.  The singer did not wait long to get into the ‘participant’ side of the narrative: the following songs featured a heightened angularity, strong crescendos at the ends of phrases, coupled with an almost conversational treatment of the bitterness and sarcasm implied.  From “Erstarrung” through “Wasserfult”, Bostridge beautifully opened out the work’s lyrical expanse and contemplation, bringing great structural awareness and repose, and using many subtle vocal dynamics to achieve a long narrative line.  “Auf dem Flusse’ was also powerfully structured with seemingly greater warmth and heroic strength than earlier.  However, the next three songs introduced the unsettling conflict between the narrator as observer and as participant, consistently playing off three dualities: comfort and pain, still and motion, and relaxation and intensity.  Here we often returned to sharp inflections, swooping phrases, and emphatic declamations – but there was great refinement in the execution too.  The first stanza of “Frühlingstraum” took us for a moment to an innocent, almost fantasy-world, so free of encumbrance -- a remarkable characterization that would be used near the end as well -- followed by powerful defiance.  Later on in this song, there was such tenderness and beauty of phrase, with wonderful suspension.  For many of these traversals, I felt that their pacing, balance, and contrast could hardly be bettered.

Young Wenwen Du is already an accomplished pianist who has won prizes at a number of competitions, and has been coached by the world’s most distinguished accompanists.  It would be idle to pretend that she yet has the seasoned sophistication of an Andsnes, Ades, or a Julius Drake, but she added an interesting character to this performance.  It may have taken a few songs for her to gain full stride, but she excelled in drawing out -- in an almost ethereal way -- all the haunting repeated note sequences that give many of the later songs their inexorability and sense of time encroaching.  Her relative composure often turned out to be a lovely foil to Bostridge’s emotional volatility, and I think her playing has a natural warmth and beauty on its own terms.

After a lithe and fleet “Die Post”, “Die Krähe” and “Im Dorfe” certainly gave us a taste of the hollow and macabre – excellently portrayed – but even in the latter there was a remarkable expressive freedom in the cantabile line to set against the darker fabric. One had to note the sharp stabs and sense of retreat in “Tauschung.”  Other songs somehow did something that I had never observed before: they seemed to recall, albeit fleetingly, some of the gestures and feelings that one finds in Schubert’s earlier lieder – a fascinating idea.  (I managed to ask the singer about this, and he replied that it was possible but not a conscious attempt.)

It was in the last five songs that the major differences arose: for all the descent to the end was certain, it seemingly did not constrain the flow of life!  “Der Wegweser” had remarkable control of dynamics, with only intermittent suggestions of instability, and ended up exuding considerable warmth.  “Das Witshaus” was even more heartfelt, expressive and particularly human in Bostridge’s hands, with the piano very warm and emphatic.  While I thought Wenwen Du might be over-pedaling slightly, she did a remarkable job of maintaining flow, even with the more fulsome textures.  “Mut” was dramatic, sometimes joking, but not obviously hollow, while the lovely “Die Nebensonnen” pushed out strongly again into a very anthem-like radiance.  All these final songs were so beautifully and naturally presented but without a trace of exaggeration; I was taken anew with how original and uplifting this music is and I wanted the feeling to go on.  But, of course, it didn’t: “Der Leiermann” crept in so quietly and, in the simplest and most unadorned way, stated the final verdict.

There is clearly a lesson to be learned here: the reason why the final song was so moving, and set the seal on an almost life-giving experience, was precisely because the previous songs still revealed such human warmth and expression.  Thus, without any conscious attempt to paint a veneer of increasing desperation and hollowness over this darkest part of the journey, an even stronger emotional resolution was achieved.  We needed no guide here: the ending was already spelled out in the music in so many subtle ways anyway.  Of course, behind this lies Bostridge’s formidable intellect that allowed the work to add up this way. 

An absolutely magnificent performance, and I have seldom come away from a rendering of Die Winterreise so emotionally fulfilled.  Why?  Probably because I really got a glimpse of the soul of our weary traveler -- and that is timeless and beyond circumstance. 

© Geoffrey Newman 2015

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