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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Winterreise D911

Gute Nacht [6:27]
Die Wetterfahne [1:54]
Gefror'ne Tränen [3:01]
Erstarrung [3:00]
Der Lindenbaum [5:36] Wasserflut [4:56]
Auf dem Flusse [3:30]
Rückblick [2:12]
Irrlicht [3:12]
Rast [3:37]
Frühlingstraum [4:17]
Einsamkeit [3:17]
Die Post [2:19]
Der greise Kopf [3:09]
Die Kräh [1:23]
Letzte Hoffnung [1:37]
Im Dorfe [2:58] CD2
Der stürmische Morgen [0:55]
Tauschung [1:37]
Der Wegweiser [4:39]
Das Wirtshaus [4:33] Mut [1:25]
Die Nebensonnen [2:57]
Der Leiermann. [4:33]
Piano Sonata in C major, D840* [44:57]
Peter Schreier (tenor); Sviatoslav Richter (piano)
rec. ‘live’ 17 February 1985, Semperoper, Dresden; *17 December, 1979, Leverkusen, West Germany,
German texts and English translations included DDD/ADD
DECCA THE ORIGINALS 478 1714 [56:52 + 65:51]
Experience Classicsonline

When these performances first appeared in 1985 the usual playing time for a CD was less than is commonly the case nowadays and, at 77:46, the performance of Winterreise could not be accommodated on to single disc. Today, the cycle would fit onto one CD but, as this is part of Universal’s The Originals series, the two-disc format has been retained.

I missed this issue first time around, though Schreier’s second recording, with András Schiff (Decca 436 122-2) has long had an honoured place in my collection. That recording dates from 1991 and in a note in the booklet Peter Schreier explains why he didn’t essay Winterreise until relatively late in his career – he was a few months away from his fiftieth birthday when he and Richter gave this performance. He wrote in the Decca booklet that he didn’t feel mature enough to sing the cycle, that “the right tone for this song cycle … could only be found after gaining some insight into life.” He adds that for many years he thought that certain passages lay uncomfortably low for his voice – until he discovered that Schubert had written high-voice versions of the very songs that troubled him. But then he says this: “During the 1980s I was able to study it with Sviatoslav Richter, who finally convinced me that I was right to sing Winterreise.” I reproduce that quotation in particular because I wonder how much of a clue that gives us to the interpretation contained on these discs. Any singer – or instrumentalist – worth his or her salt will take very close account of the views of the pianist in preparing a recital; the best interpretations and performances are partnerships, after all. But I wonder how great was the influence of Richter in this interpretation? I don’t intend to make a detailed comparison of this recording with the Schiff version but, as I hope to show, there are significant differences of style and approach and, as a general observation, it’s perhaps noteworthy that the Schreier/Richter traversal occupies 77:46 but the Schiff reading lasts 72:19.

It’s worth sharing one more quote from Schreier’s note that accompanies the Schiff recording. He says that in Winterreise “we see the pain of the wretched hero of the Romantic era driven to the brink of self-destruction (at times his suffering has an almost pathological quality.)” This view no doubt explains why Schreier’s reading of the cycle is probably the darkest, most tragic that I can ever recall hearing. I’ve always felt that the tragedy is searingly brought out in the Schiff recording. When Schreier is in alliance with Richter the tragedy is almost overwhelming.

This recording was described elsewhere on Music Web by Colin Clarke as “slow and bleakly presented”. I didn’t read this comment of Colin’s until I’d pretty much got my thoughts about this version in order but I think it’s accurate. Schreier really digs below the surface of words and music and imparts to his voice a most amazing range of colouring and expression. Indeed, sometimes you might feel that we’re hearing Mime singing Schubert! About Richter I’m not quite so sure. His playing is very supportive, of course, but set his playing alongside that of Schiff or, indeed, that of Paul Lewis in his new recording with Mark Padmore, which I’ve just reviewed, and it seems to me that both these younger pianists find more light and shade and are more imaginative and subtle in their use of rubato than the Russian master seems to be.

The difference between the two Schreier readings is evident right at the start. Schiff sets off in ‘Gute Nacht’ at a comfortable, natural pace. Richter, however, suggests a world-weary trudge and he and Schreier take a whole minute longer than do Schreier and Schiff. Apart from the fact that the slightly quicker pace is more musically satisfying I think it’s a more correct view of Wilhelm Müller’s cycle of poems. At this point the hero is unhappy but nowhere near the resignation and tragedy of later in the cycle.

In ‘Die Wetterfahne’ Schreier’s singing is bitingly dramatic – as is Richter’s playing. This weathercock is really being buffeted by strong winds! ‘Gefror'ne Tränen’ is another song that is surely a bit too slow – the marking is Nicht zu Langsam, after all. The Schiff performance, some 46 seconds shorter, is to be preferred. ‘Der Lindenbaum’ is also rather on the slow side – with Schiff at the keyboard we get more of a sense of gentle, melancholic regret from Schreier, and I think that’s appropriate at this stage in the cycle. That said, one cannot but marvel at the intensity of the reading here; it’s dark and expansive.

Shortly afterward, in ‘Auf dem Flusse’ Schreier, not for the first time, spins a very fine vocal line. Richter, for his part, weights the piano part marvellously. The very next song, ‘Rückblick’, affords a splendid example of Schreier’s acute vocal characterisation. At the line “Die Krähen warfen Ball’ und Schlossen” he projects the words with acid intensity, colouring the words with a deliberately harsh, almost metallic tone. Not long afterwards, in ‘Einsamkeit’ , he sings the line “Ach, dass die Luft so ruhig!” in such a way that it sounds as if the music is being wrenched from him. This is great vocal acting.

I like the nice, easy line that both artists achieve in ‘Tauschung’. Thereafter the cycle moves to its tragic dénouement. In ‘Der Wegweiser’ Schreier and Richter distil a concentrated atmosphere in the most masterly fashion. That’s carried over seamlessly into ‘Das Wirtshaus’ which is given a performance that brings out the unbearable sadness of the piece. Given the biting drama of many of the preceding songs I thought that Schreier and Richter, the singer especially, would have exhibited more defiance in ‘Mut’ but their way with it is perfectly satisfying. A mood of stoical acceptance seems to pervade ‘Die Nebensonnen’. Finally, the extraordinary piece of music that is ‘Der Leiermann’ receives a suitably eerie performance. Schreier is quite free with the rhythms and treats his line like a recitative.

So ends an extraordinary, gripping and intense interpretation of Winterreise. I may not agree with every interpretative decision in the performance but any critical observations on points of detail need to be set in the context of a moving and unsettling artistic achievement. On balance I prefer Schreier’s recording with Schiff but there’s so much at which to marvel in this Richter performance that one must just be grateful that it was captured for posterity. This is a very special reading but one, I would suggest, that is not for newcomers to Schubert’s masterpiece. Richter and Schreier very definitely take us to the dark side and their performance is often harrowing. Listeners should be warned that the Dresden audience were a pretty bronchial lot.

Richter’s performance of the so-called “Reliquie” Piano Sonata is another extraordinary experience. This sonata was begun in 1825 but Schubert did not complete it. He probably laid it aside to concentrate on other music and whether he intended to return to it or simply felt he had taken the piece as far as he could – or wished – to do is unknown. There have been some attempts to complete it but Richter confines himself to Schubert’s own text, which means that he plays the seventy-odd bars of the Menuetto plus its trio and also as much of the Rondo as Schubert composed, after which the music just peters out.

Richter’s performance is on a massive scale. The first movement alone lasts for an incredible 22:35, partly because Richter adopts a fairly expansive tempo and partly because he observes the exposition repeat. Readers may get some idea of the scale when I say that he reaches the development section after 11:06. By contrast, Alfred Brendel, in a live 1998 account for Philips, has nearly finished the movement by then! He takes just 12:11 overall. Wisely, Brendel eschews the exposition repeat and he also adopts a much more realistic and forward moving speed – the tempo marking is Moderato. Frankly I don’t think Schubert’s material is strong enough to justify the Richter approach – and Schubert makes that material go an awfully long way! One becomes almost painfully aware of the reliance on repeated note figures and the material isn’t as thematically memorable as, say, the first movement of the great B Flat sonata D 960. Having said all that, Richter impresses with the rigour of his approach and his playing is hypnotic at times.

He’s patrician and poised in II, where his tempo is not dissimilar to Brendel’s. I wondered if the tempo that Richter adopts for III is not just a fraction too broad but he’s suitably light fingered in the torso of IV.

So, two compelling, even provocative Schubert performances given by two of the most individual and esteemed concert artists of the second half of the twentieth century. I don’t think either performance could or should be recommended as a library choice. However, both performances, that of Winterreise especially, contain insights and thought-provoking details at every turn and as such they will amply repay careful listening.

John Quinn

Masterworks Index: All reviews of Winterreise




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