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Schubert ‘Winterreise’ Simon Keenlyside, Pedja Muzijevic, with Brandi L. Norton, Seth Parker, Lionel Popkin (dancers) Directed by Trisha Brown, Lighting by Jennifer Tipton. Barbican Hall, 18th September 2003 (ME)


‘I was deeply moved by this music, I have such a great respect for it, and I just took the gestures from the words and music… everything for me is rooted in the text…’ thus Trisha Brown in an interview for Seen & Heard last year: she was referring here to her production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo but the same kind of dedication to text and music is evident in this Winterreise in which Simon Keenlyside is also the protagonist. Both Brown and Keenlyside were both obviously aware of the daring nature of this undertaking, with its potential to offend those who are disturbed by radicalism, but Winterreise like all masterpieces will survive whatever we do to it – in this case it would be more appropriate to speak of illumination.

The traditional song recital in which the soloist, resplendent in his penguin-suit, stands in the curve of the piano is of course the perfect form of musical communication for those attuned to it, but it has disadvantages which the present event seemed to me to overcome. In most London recitals the singer can look out onto a sea of heads buried in their translations as he swelters in his elegant evening-wear – here, to what I am sure is to the dismay of curmudgeons, the English translations were projected on screens at either side of the stage and the singer was liberated from his dress-suit and wore a loose shirt and trousers which, though hardly suitable for a winter journey, must surely have felt more comfortable. It certainly sounded that way; this is the fourth time I have heard Keenlyside sing this work and it was by far the finest – perhaps he is such an individual that only this form of communication can bring out the best in him, but whether or not this is true there were certainly songs within the cycle performed at the level of Goerne or Quasthoff, and I cannot think of higher praise.

Winterreise is not merely the story of a journey: it is as Richard Capell says ‘an outcry of scorched sensibility’ and it is in the evocation of this sensibility that Keenlyside and Brown triumphantly succeed. The road upon which the wanderer embarks is just as ‘latent with unseen existences’ as Whitman’s but here the existences are the stuff of the protagonist’s dreams and self-analysis. Brown’s choreography is fluent, subtle and naturalistic, concentrating mainly on the use of arm and hand movements which she describes as ‘a complex union of arm gestures by three dancers, including the singer, that signals the subject of a song that appears and reappears during the cycle such as trees, exhaustion or the crow’. These gestures stress the vulnerability of the protagonist, who seems very often to be ‘lifting distressful hands as if to bless’.

Gute Nacht is set almost like a satire on normal performance style; the singer wears a frock coat as a girl dressed in a parody of either a wedding gown or a mannequin’s outfit circles around him – the hypnotic quality of the movement here finely echoed the sense of inevitability suggested by the music. Brown has taken her cue here from the lines ‘Es zieht ein Mondenschatten / Als mein Gefährte mit’ and Jennifer Tipton’s lighting eloquently implies both closeness and distance, since the man and woman meet only as shadows on the backdrop leaving the physical shell of the wanderer to trudge on alone. Pedja Muzijevic’s playing was not merely supportive of the singing but nuanced and sensitive in phrasing: the deceptively simple shift from D minor into the major key at ‘Will dich im Traum nicht stören’ beautifully counter-pointed Keenlyside’s poetic rendition of the text. I can only assume that the style of this interpretation naturally slowed down the singing since it seemed to me that this was the first time that the F sharp on that phrase and the jump of a sixth at ‘An dich hab' ich gedacht’ sounded not only comfortable for this singer but heartbreakingly expressive.

Die Wetterfahne shows us a dancer representing the wind which mocks the poor fugitive and plays with hearts: the singing of ‘eine reiche Braut’ sounded less resentful than is usual. In Gefror’ne Tränen and Erstarrung the patterns of the gestures echo the speaker’s tears, eschewing any literal notions of kissing the ground or seeking green grass. Der Lindenbaum employs Brown’s ‘cell’ of gestures, in this case suggesting perhaps the goddess Devi, at once benign and ferocious. At the lines ‘Komm her zu mir, Geselle, / Hier find'st du deine Ruh'!’ Keenlyside’s beautifully inflected and coloured singing found its perfect counterpart in the movements suggesting the temptation to finish his journey here and find the rest which eludes him.

Rast and Frühlingstraum could be seen as the centre of this interpretation: in the former Keenlyside is required to become part of a quartet of dancers within which he is at times partially, at times entirely, supported by the others, suggesting the trusting, almost instinctive way in which the wanderer responds to the world around him. Keenlyside’s singing of ‘Fühlst in der Still' erst deinen Wurm / Mit heißem Stich sich regen!’ superbly evoked the protagonist’s inner bitterness, all the more evocative when contrasted with Frühlingstraum where the dancers form a bed where the singer can briefly indulge in his dream. This was for me the most moving and involving part of the whole performance: as the voice mesmerizingly reflects on who might have painted the leaves on the glass, the singer’s hand delicately traces their shape in the air – somehow this made even clearer the irony that the flowers are merely ice-crystal patterns, and the artist Winter – and we are then able to contemplate those heartbreaking lines where the protagonist faces his desolation yet still feels his heart beating warmly after his dream. ‘Die Augen schless’ ich wieder, / Noch schlägt das Herz so warm’ was perfect in its understated yet fervent expression, ‘warm’ being given just enough slight pressure, and Muzijevic’s playing of the right-hand figure suggesting the heartbeat, and his response to the final question, devastating in its eloquent finality, were both as fine as could be wished – the leaves will never be green again for him, just as he will never hold her in his arms – was the clear answer given by that desolate A minor chord.

Der greise Kopf was remarkable for the way in which the body of the singer is used, at one point he is carried by the dancers after having ‘failed’ to travel the distance he desires: the most powerful hand gestures are used here too, especially where one of the dancers seems to be stopping the protagonist’s descent into the grave. Both Letzte Hoffnung and Täuschung superbly evoke the consoling and yet capricious power of nature. The one leaf falling to the ground is simply shown with a hand gesture rather then the singer hitting the floor, and the will o’ the wisp is characterized by subtle lighting and, in the piano, Ländler-like phrasing which serve to make the delusion even more touching. Der stürmische Morgen is one of the most energetic songs in the cycle, with the singer grimly commenting that the stormy morning is after his own heart – appropriately this is the song during which Keenlyside actually has to leap, and far from being embarrassing, such movement seemed the only choice for a song dominated by words like ‘zerrissen’.

Brown’s understanding of Winterreise is well displayed in Der Wegweiser and Das Wirtshaus where she rejects what might be the expected visual image of walking in different directions and instead sees the lines ‘Habe ja doch nichts begangen, / Daß ich Menschen sollte scheu'n’ as central: the wanderer does not pace the stage, but in Das Wirtshaus he lies facing the audience in the most vulnerable intimate position, the lighting dramatically emphasizing his drawn features so that in his desperation that the rooms in the ‘inn’ are already taken we cannot help but recall his forlorn question about shunning mankind. Keenlyside sang both songs with searing power, achieving a daring approach to ‘matt zum Niedersinken’ and the exact tone of grim determination required at the end.

Die Nebensonnen was staged with elegant simplicity, dancers and lighting suggesting the three suns and finally in a subtle projection the one whose disappearance would make the speaker feel better ‘Im Dunkeln’. Graham Johnson perceptively remarks ‘…this is dance music in slow motion… his (Schubert’s) music encouraged romantic embraces from which he himself was excluded. When his keyboard was the only thing he could lovingly touch all evening, it is hardly surprising that he should associate dancing with being on the outside looking in and that many of his dances are suffused with an almost physical sense of longing’. Brown’s choreography finely evokes not only the words themselves in a literal sense, but the longing behind them.

In Der Leiermann, the three dancers are pared down to one, whose shadow is cast across the stage, his distorted beckoning fingers at once frightening and consoling. In that tremendous moment when the wanderer, for only the second time in the cycle, questions another being at ‘Wünderlicher Alter’ Keenlyside’s upward inflection on ‘Alter’ and his anguished final enquiry formed a few of those rare moments in performance when one wishes that what is heard and seen then could last forever. The postlude refuses any consolatory answers to the question: this interpretation of ‘Winterreise’ is equally reticent, but in its respect for the music and poetry, born out of what the choreographer has called her desire to ‘understand the languages of both music and drama in the deepest way I can’, Trisha Brown, Simon Keenlyside, Pedja Muzijevic and the dancers Brandi L. Norton, Seth Parker and Lionel Popkin, have created a work which reminds us once again of the true nature of a masterpiece: just as the hurdy-gurdy man circles slowly as the voice mesmerizingly evokes his part in the drama, so the world continues to turn, oblivious to, or heedless of, our part in it, and the great work stands at the still centre as perhaps our only recognizable evidence, apart from the love of children, that we have even influenced it.

This was unquestionably one of the greatest Winterreisen I have seen, both in terms of the singing and playing, and of the overall nature of the experience itself. I’m sure there are plenty of people who were either outraged or bored by it, but they were clearly not much in evidence on Thursday night, when the performance was given an ovation the like of which I have not heard for many years – and what a joy it is just to contemplate these little words: ‘nearly two thousand people packed the Barbican to hear Winterreise. They will be privileged indeed if they ever hear a finer performance.


Melanie Eskenazi



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