> Franz Schubert - Winterreise [TB]: Classical CD Reviews- Nov 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Winterreise (arranged for tenor and string quartet by Jens Josef)
Christian Elsner (tenor); Henschel String Quartet
Rec 7-11 May 2001, Studio 2, Bayerische Rundfunk, Munich
CPO 999 877-2 [68.45]


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With the passing of time, and the greater focus on the feelings of the individual in the intellectual aftermath of the French Revolution, the developing romantic impulse gave the composition of lieder a greater priority. And in the longer term still, Schubert's output of more than six hundred songs established both a repertoire and an artistic frame of reference. Later composers built upon, and sought to emulate, his achievement, though none has ever surpassed it: Schumann, Brahms, Liszt, Wolf, Mahler, Strauss ...

Beyond the huge number of wonderful individual songs, Schubert also confirmed a new genre that had begun just a few years before with Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte (1816): the song cycle comprising a series of songs on a common poetic theme. Schubert's two celebrated examples of the genre, Die schöne Müllerin (1823) and Winterreise (1827), are based on the poetry of Wilhelm Müller, Imperial Librarian in the Academy at Dessau. In October 1815 the poet had written: 'Courage! A kindred soul may be found who will hear the tunes behind the words of my poems, and give them back to me.' That kindred soul was Schubert but, alas, Müller died shortly before the completion of Winterreise.

Winterreise was conceived, significantly, for a duo combination of voice and piano. The present arrangement with string quartet and tenor was the brainchild of the singer, Christian Elsner, and there is no question of either his or the Henschel Quartet's commitment to the cause. Nor is the arrangement by Jens Josef lacking in either skill or taste. The recording is of excellent quality, so too the general presentation by CPO. So far, so good. But can the disc be recommended?

The answer is a qualified 'no'. For the essence of this music is so bound up with the original concept, the more so in an extended cycle than an individual song, that to rearrange it is to assault its special nature. Not that others have not previously tried, including a well known mixed ensemble version by Hans Zender. But the present release is more likely to be of interest and value to Schubert aficionados; that is, to those who know and love the music already, and want to explore other approaches to it.

Christian Elsner is a talented singer and his vocal qualities do bring insights and satisfaction to this great work. But the combination of voice and string quartet does not work anything like so well as the combination of voice and piano. Too often the results are bland, or pizzicati are forced to substitute for a clear rhythmic impulse. To be sure, there are plenty of effective moments, for example the rich toned cello beneath the ensemble in 'Erstarrung', the muted timbres accompanying 'Rast' (perhaps the highlight of the performance). However, these points of interest merely serve to underline how wonderful is the piece in its original form as one of the greatest achievements of Schubert's miraculous yet tragically short life.

Schubert's friend Josef von Spaun described the scene late in 1827 when Schubert first presented Winterreise to his friends and supporters: 'Schubert had been in a gloomy mood for some time and seemed unwell. When I asked him what was wrong, he would only say, 'Now you will all soon hear and understand. I shall sing you a cycle of frightening songs, which have taken more out of me than ever was the case before.' We were taken aback by the dark mood of these songs, but Schubert said, 'I like these songs better than all the others and you will like them too.' And he was right; we were soon enthusiastic about the impression made by these melancholy songs, which Johann Vogl sang in a masterly way.'

There is no question that Schubert's commitment to this cycle of twenty-four songs had everything to do with his own personal crisis, particularly the intensifying illness which would kill him the following year at the age of just thirty-one. The project dominated his artistic priorities, and its true rewards as a work of art remain in the duo format that Schubert originally conceived. Imitations may be interesting, but they do remain imitations. Why bother, when it is possible to visit and revisit the real thing?

Terry Barfoot

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