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RECORDING OF THE MONTH

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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Winterreise D911

Gute Nacht, Die Wetterfahne, Gefror'ne Tränen, Erstarrung, Der Lindenbaum, Wasserflut, Auf dem Flusse, Rückblick, Irrlicht, Rast, Frühlingstraum, Einsamkeit, Die Post, Der greise Kopf, Die Krähe, Letzte Hoffnung, Im Dorfe, Der stürmische Morgen, Tauschung, Der Wegwiser, Mut, Die Nebensonnen, Der Leiermann.
Ian Bostridge, (tenor) Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)
recorded Potton Hall, Suffolk, May 2004. DDD
EMI CLASSICS 5 57790 2 [70:47]

A true work of genius inspires many creative insights. It becomes alive, reborn, when a good performance elicits a new, distinctive response. Such a work is Winterreise. This year we have already had, in the Matthias Goerne/Alfred Brendel recording, an interpretation so exceptional that it sets a new benchmark. This version, by Ian Bostridge and Leif Ove Andsnes is completely different from the Goerne/Brendel, but none the less a very important addition to the canon.

Winterreise is a work of intense introspection, often performed best when a singer has absorbed it fully, through "life experience". Nearly ten years ago, Bostridge recorded it in a venture with David Alden, the film producer. The DVD of the recording and of the making of the film has recently been reissued. Alden had decidedly definite ideas on how the piece should be presented: the performance was director-led, not performer-led. Bostridge and his pianist, Julius Drake, showed by their body language that Alden's vision was not one they were attuned to, and inevitably it comes across in the performance. Over the years, Bostridge evolved his own views on the cycle. He has lived his own journey, imbuing his interpretation with a deep understanding of its psychological complexities. His voice has also grown more assured, opening up with a new, warmer richness. This new recording, made only in May this year, is "his" Winterreise, light years more personal, more technically and emotionally developed than the earlier version.

Schubert was himself a tenor, and wrote Winterreise with the voice-type in mind. The pure, crystalline quality of Bostridge's voice has a transparent quality that brings emotion to the surface. His voice, sometimes compared to an exotic wind instrument, can express a plaintiveness not many others can aspire too. Yet here, the vulnerability is definitely not of the type expressed in the acclaimed Die Schöne Müllerin which launched his career. It is tempered with a recognition that the journey serves a purpose, however unknown. The miller's lad escapes fate, but the protagonist here faces up to it. Bostridge's voice can express this more complex vulnerability with a resonant firmness. This is reinforced by the playing of Andsnes, resolute without being dominant. Andsnes is a Schubert soloist of great experience, and his partnership with Bostridge is a meeting of like minds.

Indeed, what is striking in this version is the way singer and pianist bring out the inner patterns in the music. The ebb and flow of the musical line feels almost organic. The stages on this journey are well defined : the pause for reflection Der Lindenbaum, the contrast between Einsamkeit and Die Post, for example. There are songs of repose and songs of movement. At times, Andsnes plays with an almost penitential sense, as if marching in a funeral procession. It is very subtle and understated, but is repeated several times, in the "tolling bells" of Frühlingstraum, then again in Das Wirthaus and Die Nebensonnen. Similarly, the attention to structural detail brings out little felicities, such as the way "wunderliches Tier" is sung referring the strange crow accompanying the wanderer, anticipating the "wunderlicher Alte" whom the protagonist will follow later. Both players clearly respond to each other. In Auf dem Flusse, the voice mimics the piano, rising out of the introduction "Der du so lustig rauschtest" with ever so gentle a gap between words, and later, "erkennst du nun dein Bild". In Im Dorfe, the voice floats upwards on "und Morgen früh" while the piano growls and tinkles, graphically describing the snoring villagers and the arrival of dawn. This is by no means a "text-led" performance.

Indeed, it moves with a sense of wonder, as if each new stage on the journey springs a surprising new discovery. Whatever psychological label might be pinned on the protagonist, here he is portrayed as a man with an acute, hyper-bright sensitivity to his surroundings, seeking portents in all he sees, but unable to make coherent sense of them. His response to the world around him is steeped in lyricism – Frühlingstraum here is exquisite – yet it is illuminated by the intense clear light that shines from a snowbound landscape. How very different from the portrayal Alden used in the filmed version, where the protagonist is a madman locked in an asylum and his visions are mere delusion.

Bostridge's protagonist has striking flashes of insight. Crossing the frozen river in Auf dem Flusse, he connects the thundering torrents beneath the ice with his own psyche. One of the "dein Bild"s is whispered with a dramatic jolt of recognition. The moment of silence at the middle of Irrlicht enhances the lines that follow with a sense of magic, as if the will o' the wisp was an elemental spirit. Even the fierceness of Bostridge's attack in some parts, such as "wass soll ich..." and vowels sometimes too open, fit with this portrayal of preternaturally heightened observation. This prepares us for the surreal transformation in the last three songs.

After the despair that has come before Mut (courage) strikes a strange note. Its surface defiance rings hollow, like whistling in a graveyard. Has the protagonist finally taken leave of reality ? When he contemplates the three suns in Die Nebensonnen and imagines his lovers eyes, is he using poetic licence, or has he lost it? Something is out of kilter. Then the wandering beggar comes onto the scene, resolutely playing his hurdy-gurdy. The realisation of this song, Der Leiermann, on this recording is spectacular. Bostridge sings with delicate lyricism "und sein kleiner Teller bleibt ihm immer leer"- all lovely rolling "l"s. The air of reverence and mystery is almost palpable. The protagonist observes the old man with perception, even though he does not know why h will follow him or where it will lead. Bostridge sings "wunderlicher Alte" with a kind of reverence, leaving the meaning open ended, floating in the ears and memory. What does happen next ? The mystery is part of the story.

Comparisons are meaningless. Bostridge doesn't sing like Fischer-Dieskau, or Hotter, or Goerne, or Schreier or Prégardien. An artist creates his own, unique interpretation. This version has been deeply thought through and absorbed with creative imagination. It is faithful to the music's form and structure, yet highlights the emotional and psychological aspects of the protagonist's mind with unusual insight. It is a performance Bostridge and Andsnes can be proud of, for it enhances still further our understanding of this amazing cycle.

Anne Ozorio



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