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
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
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
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.
Masterworks Index: All reviews of Winterreise