Following on from his live recording of Die schöne Müllerin,
which was released shortly before this present disc (see review),
Christopher Maltman appears in Schubert’s second great
Wilhelm Müller song cycle. I admired the performance of
Die schöne Müllerin very much and it’s
good to be able to report that this Winterreise is just
Christopher Maltman, aided once again by wonderfully intuitive
and supportive playing by Graham Johnson, delivers a searching
and deeply satisfying account of Schubert’s late masterpiece.
There’s less of the vocal lightness that I noted in Die
schöne Müllerin but I think that’s entirely
appropriate for this darker cycle. However, Maltman’s
artistry is just as striking and his range of vocal colouring
and dynamic shading is once again extremely impressive. I found
it particularly interesting to listen one afternoon to both
cycles together with only a fairly short gap between. That may
not be an experience to repeat very often - each of the cycles
really needs to stand alone, as it were. However, it was fascinating,
as a one-off, to hear these two artists in both cycles and to
savour Schubert’s invention - and theirs.
Winterreise is indeed a journey on all sorts of levels
and by the time you reach the end of this performance you really
do feel you’ve accompanied Christopher Maltman through
several types of terrain - both musical and spiritual and, through
poetic imagery, the illusion of physical terrain. The beginning
of the journey is musically auspicious. The pace set by Johnson
and Maltman isn’t a trudge but neither is there any spring
in the traveller’s step: this is a forlorn, sad tread.
Yet even here, though there may be little to cheer the onlooker’s
spirits, one can take pleasure in the musical detail, not least
in the expert touches of rubato in the fourth stanza.
And, time and again, these artists evidence splendid attention
to detail, though not in a way that distracts the listener from
the bigger picture. ‘Der Lindenbaum’, for instance,
gets a finely detailed reading from both performers while in
the very next song, ‘Wasserflut’, Maltman displays
exemplary control at all dynamic levels. A little further on
it’s Johnson’s turn to catch the ear with a small
but perceptive detail at the start of ‘Die Post’.
Notice how he varies the dynamic of the post horn motif, brilliantly
suggesting the horn call at a distance, echoing round the countryside.
The artists bring out the forward-looking aspects of Schubert’s
writing at times. One example is ‘Irrlicht’ and,
even more so, ‘Letzte Hoffnung’ where the spare
writing almost prefigures the Second Viennese School.
Though the whole of Winterreise is magnificent, both
musically and dramatically, the final few songs are, for me,
the interpretative touchstone of a performance. This is definitely
not a performance that disappoints in any respect during these
last few songs. ‘Die Wegweiser’ is desolate and
sparse. ‘Das Wirthaus’ is superb, not least for
the way that Graham Johnson delivers the piano introduction.
Every chord is beautifully weighted and invested with meaning,
though there’s absolutely no sense of over-interpretation.
When the singer enters there’s a desolate, numb tone in
Christopher Maltman’s voice and he and Johnson sustain
genuine tension throughout the song . The last two lines are
delivered with weary defiance.
After a brief show of defiance in ‘Mut!’ the desolate,
drained mood returns in ‘Die Nebensonnen’ and will
not be denied. Maltman is resigned to his fate. Finally, he
delivers ‘Der Leiermann’ with a voice that’s
all but devoid of emotion; there’s nothing left.
This is a memorable reading of Winterreise. Christopher
Maltman’s singing is technically superb and his interpretation
is full of insight and imagination. Yet again Graham Johnson
proves to be the ideal partner in Schubert; this is a joint
I see that a live recording of Schwanengesang is on the
way from these gifted artists. It can’t come too soon.
If they’re on this sort of form then that will be another
unmissable release for all devotees of lieder.
Masterwork Index: Winterreise