"I will sing
a cycle of spine-chilling songs to you.
I am curious to see what you think of
them. They have taken more out of me
than any others I have written. I like
these songs more than all the others,
and in time you will come to like them
too." (quotation taken from
Schubert’s great cycle of 24 songs setting
the words of Wilhelm Müller was
written in two sittings the year before
the composer died. The type of voice
was not specified but the words imply
a man’s winter journey. Given that the
music is littered with examples of gender
transposition - and not only before
Schubert’s time: Pears as the madwoman
in Britten’s Curlew River, for
example - I was not bothered by this
and have considered the recording on
its own merits rather than as a curiosity.
According to a website
dedicated to the work , Christine
Schäfer is not the first female
to record it but has no less than eleven
predecessors including Lotte Lehmann
and Margaret Price in the soprano category.
I have not heard any of them but have
for comparison excellent recordings
by a tenor - Peter Pears, two baritones
- Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (his 1971
reading with Gerald Moore) and Matthias
Goerne, and a bass-baritone - Hans Hotter.
Although most of the recordings have
been made by baritones, interestingly,
it is the high voices – Schäfer
and Pears – who sing the music in Schubert’s
original keys. Fischer-Dieskau, Goerne
and Hotter had to transpose it.
One point I should
make early is that the pianist should
be no mere accompanist in this music.
Fine Schubertians such as Alfred Brendel,
Imogen Cooper and Andras Schiff are
amongst the pianists who have recorded
the work. Here Eric Schneider’s contribution
to the interpretation seems to be considerable.
In matters of tempi, he takes some freedoms
and these artists are generally not
inclined to linger – the other versions
mentioned all take at least four minutes
longer i.e. between 72 and 75 minutes.
In terms of phrasing and dynamics, this
is highly-characterised playing and
there is very much a sense of partnership
between singer and pianist.
The general tendency
for fast tempi is noticeable right at
the very beginning with a very sprightly
rendition of Gute Nacht (4:44
when all my other comparison versions
are well over five minutes and Hotter
takes over six). In this song Schäfer’s
voice has a quite magical timbre and
brings an unusually positive sense of
anticipation about the journey ahead.
Die Wetterfane has an indeterminate
forecast but in Gefrorne Tränen
the spine starts to chill along with
the tears. The words "Ei tränen,
meine tränen" are delivered
with wonderful pianissimo shading. Erstarrung
is given with much ambiguity of mood.
The fifth song, Der
Lindenbaum is probably the most
famous of all, the traveller muses whilst
resting under a linden tree. Schäfer
achieves a feeling of repose without
premature resignation. This is followed
by Wasserflut, in which a veritable
torrent of emotion is poured out in
the last line of each stanza. In Auf
dem flusse the waters are still
and run deep, the questions at the end
are seemingly a matter of life and death.
Rückblick looks back in
anger as Schäfer and Schneider
continue unerringly to find the kernel
of each song. Irrlicht has sorrowfulness
which belies the title whilst Rast
hardly sounds restful but these paradoxes
are surely as Schubert intended. Nevertheless
the traveller presumably falls asleep
for Frühlingstraum follows,
initially seeing off Der Lindenbaum
in the beauty stakes but this is part
dream, part nightmare. Schneider deserves
special mention here for the lilt he
brings to the lighter passages. With
Einsamkeit comes half-time but
not before Schäfer has poured out
her soul in this expression of loneliness.
Take a break here; Schubert did when
writing the songs.
Die Post sets
us off again, expressing some hope and
wearing heart on sleeve. Der greise
Kopf has sufficient angst to turn
anyone’s hair grey whilst Die Krähe
is here no ordinary crow but a raven.
In Letzte Hoffnung the traveller’s
last hope seems to be no hope. During
Im dorfe the pianist is menacing
as Schäfer eschews the sleeping
village to be rewarded with Der sturmische
Morgen. Hope seemingly returns in
Täuschung but the traveller
ultimately realises it is illusory.
Der Wegweiser is a signpost along
a road from which no one has ever returned
and resignation abounds in Schäfer’s
rendition. There is clearly going to
be no room at the inn in Das Wirthaus
but there is courage aplenty in Mut!
In Die Nebensonnen a sense of
wonder about the three false suns prevails.
Finally, to Der Leiermann – the
organ-grinder – what musician wouldn’t
want to play his instrument in accompaniment
of this voice? Journey’s end and Schäfer
inflects every syllable with subtle
meaning as time begins to stand still.
The very end is as it should be - almost
The recording is very
natural with voice and piano beautifully
balanced. If there is a blot, it is
in the presentation. The cardboard case
is all white with an embossed title.
Thus what you see above is artwork from
the booklet. This is attractive enough
and provides full texts in German and
English but there is no information
on the music or artists, just two quotations
(one of which is given in full above).
This is a wonderfully
sung, passionate reading of Winterreise
that will bear comparison with those
of any of the illustrious names mentioned
above. I first heard it in the middle
of heatwave. No matter, it is a Winterreise
for all seasons.
"You must hear
this version of Schubert’s spine-chilling
songs. Listening to it will leave you
emotionally drained. Let me know what
you think of it on the bulletin
board. I like this version more
than any other I have heard and, in
time, feel sure that it will come to
be regarded as a classic."
Patrick C Waller
the ONYX Catalogue