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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


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Franz SCHUBERT (1797 – 1828)
Die Winterreise

Brigitte Fassbaender, mezzo-soprano, Aribert Reimann, piano
Recorded Studio no.1 Abbey Road, London, October 1988
EMI Classics 5 74989 [69:51]


This is a powerful and, in its way, thoroughly convincing account of Winterreise. Fassbaender is a great artist with an imposing personality and fine interpretative insight, and when this recording was made, she was at her vocal height. But what of the argument that these are exclusively male songs? Is this narrow-minded sexism, or does it have some truth in it? I personally feel that such objections should not be dismissed too lightly. Schubert clearly intended them for the male voice, and the simple musical fact that all the songs are here sung at least an octave above their normal pitch has obvious implications for texture and the relationship between the voice and the piano part. These things have to be borne in mind, and are far from insignificant; but they certainly do not invalidate Fassbaender’s wonderful readings.

Winterreise is, for me, Schubert’s supreme achievement. The late instrumental works – the Trout, the Great C major, the late piano sonatas, for example – loveable though they are, are characterised either by their ‘heavenly lengths’ or their infuriating repetitiveness, depending on your point of view, or, perhaps, your mood. Winterreise, on the other hand, builds inexorably by means of the intense poetry of the often very tiny songs, several of which are barely a minute long – boredom or irritation is simply not an option!

Fassbaender is an artist with great stage experience, and she uses that to full effect, characterising the songs sharply and often with overwhelming emotional power. She expresses perfectly the intense pathos of, for example, Das Wirtshaus or Die Nebensonnen, where hope fades so heart-rendingly, and rises to the defiance of Mut or Der stürmische Morgen equally well - this is a performance of great emotional range. My only problem was with a technical aspect of her voice; the breaks between the different registers are very pronounced, much more so than with most singers. Listen to the very opening of the cycle, the great song Gute Nacht, and you will notice how her voice descends into a chesty lower register at the close of the first phrase; this happens time and time again, which I found distracting, particularly in the quieter songs.

What of her accompanist, whose role in this greatest of all song-cycles is crucial? Reimann is a superb musician, and his accompaniment is alive with imagination and responsiveness. He contributes massively to the performance, for example, of Im Dorfe, with its subterranean rumblings and sudden startled hesitations. On the other hand, he comes adrift sadly in Die Post, whose galloping rhythms have been a death-trap for more than one pianist. Reimann is simply unable to play them at all accurately. Overall, he is very fine, though I wouldn’t put him quite in the class of either Gerald Moore (for Fischer-Dieskau) or Benjamin Britten (for Peter Pears).

The disc is a bargain, and musically hugely rewarding. Its economical price, however, means that you don’t get the texts of the songs or translations either.

Gwyn Parry-Jones


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