S&H Festival review

Schubertiade Festival, Schwarzenberg, August 28th - 31st: (ME)


Part One, the Festival and Schubert's "Winterreise" - Thomas Quasthoff and Justus Zeyen, Angelika - Kaufmann Saal, Tuesday August 28th

For anyone who loves Lieder and beautiful surroundings, the Schubertiade Festival is heaven on earth. For two weeks in June, and again in August-September, the world's leading exponents of Lieder and Chamber Music come to this delectable spot in the unspoilt Vorarlberg, where the musical standards are as high, and the audience's appreciation as knowledgeable and enthusiastic, as anywhere in the world.

Most of the concerts are held in the newly-built Angelika-Kaufmann-Saal, idyllically set in a gentle curve of mountains, and it is not only the music which conspires to make the experience a perfect one; the hotels are geared to the Festival, which means that not only do you get daily reviews on your breakfast table and a "Schubertiade-Bus" to transport you there and back with your fellow concert-goers, but even mealtimes are based around your evening - at our hotel, the "Schubertiade Menu" offered light main courses before the concert, with delicious desserts and wines served on our return.

As well as the spectacular views afforded by the hall's position, there are further delights such as the signal for the concerts to begin and to resume after the interval - no bells here, but two horn players performing Schubert duos! Other unexpected pleasures included running into artists at every turn - hardly surprising considering that the village is tiny - and it is certainly an experience to take one's interval drinks at a Lott/Murray/Johnson recital with the likes of Thomas Quasthoff, and to have lunch in the same tiny dining room as him and Justus Zeyen on two occasions, just hours before their sublime recitals.

Our week began with Thomas Quasthoff and Justus Zeyen giving the greatest live performance of "Winterreise" that I have ever experienced - and I have heard a lot of them, from Pears to Bostridge. This was a performance without a weakness. Of course, the place was packed, and from the first bars of "Gute Nacht," Quasthoff had us all gripped as though he were a not-so-ancient mariner. This great bass-baritone does not merely relate the songs, he inhabits them, yet without undue histrionics; instead of show, we experience what can only be called "was uns in tiefsten inner bewegt." His pianist is no less remarkable, with a poetic touch which makes the instrument seem an extension of the voice. Quasthoff cannot be an easy singer to accompany; his approach is not rigid, and there were many times when Zeyen seemed to be seeking guidance from him in an unexpected phrase, but he carried it all off with aplomb.

This was a "Winterreise" of strong contrasts; in "Gute Nacht," for example, "Was soll ich länger weilen" was only just on the right side of loudness, whereas "Will dich im Traum nicht stören" was so quietly sung that one felt the audience leaning forward. Overall, the interpretation had moved on from his Wigmore Hall (with Charles Spencer) performance - that was a mainly angry, at times muscularly stoical journey, whereas this was elegiac, poetic, heartbreakingly forlorn and deeply involving. "Der Lindenbaum" was a case in point; the crucial line of temptation, "Hier findest du deine Ruh'" was no longer sung as though it were an ironically false suggestion, but as something in which the narrator so much longed to lose himself; you no longer felt like shaking your head ruefully, instead you just wanted to weep at such desperate anguish. Indeed, a sense of the most unutterable sadness prevailed throughout the cycle, in which the few moments of bravado were even more poignant; there was no suggestion that this wanderer is on the brink of madness, or that he is some sort of stoical wayfarer trudging his way towards either death or transfiguration - on the contrary, this was "Winterreise" as I had always dreamed of hearing it but never yet had - possessing a sense of "innigkeit" which informed every note, and sung and played with a rapture and sense of devotion which had me on the edge of my seat, and the edge of tears, throughout.

In such a wondrous performance, there were so many high points that it is difficult to select - but as I write this five days later, I can still hear Quasthoff's melting tone and heartfelt word pointing at "Doch an den Fensterschieben /Wer malte die Blätter da?" and his unaffected yet poignant phrasing of "Von Wonne und Seligkeit." In songs such as "Einsamkeit," which sometimes appear to pass unnoticed, singer and pianist established and maintained a true Schubertian "gehende bewegung," and although there was nothing exaggerated at "Ach! dass die Welt so licht," no one could have been unmoved by the way in which the sentiment seemed to go from heart to heart. Similarly, "Der greise Kopf" was a small miracle of expressiveness and a perfect demonstration of how to involve your audience in a narrative; "Und hab' mich sehr gefreuet" held within it all the false bravado of the narrator, and the final "Auf dieser ganzen Reise!" made your throat constrict with its sense of vehement longing.

Best of all was "Das Wirtshaus," another song where I sometimes "switch off" and find myself waiting for my favourite, "Die Nebensonnen." Quasthoff and Zeyen made you hear the shape of the music as well as the narrative, and it is impossible to give high enough praise to Zeyen's rapt, poetic, devoted playing, as well as to Quasthoff's miraculous handling of the words - "Die müde Wandrer laden / Ins kuhle Wirtshaus ein " conveying all the doomed yet inviting temptation of the grave, "Bin matt zum Niedersinken," giving a real sense of aching weariness, and the final lines having an almost canon-like grandeur.

The final lines of "Die Nebensonnen" are marked pp for the piano, and here

Quasthoff carried on this quietness in his singing, intoning the words so slowly and softly, and with such a tremulous air of rapture, that you could hear the audience almost breathing as one. "Der Leiermann" brought the cycle to a triumphant close; after a long silence, a richly deserved standing ovation for a performance which I cannot imagine being equalled by any other singer and accompanist today; I'll finally get to hear Goerne and Schneider in "Winterreise" at Glyndebourne in October, but until then, the only final comment which seems appropriate for what I heard on this occasion is from Donne's "The Relique:" - "Alle mesure, and alle language, I shoulde passe / Shoulde I telle what a miracle (s) he was."

Melanie Eskenazi

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