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Smithsonian Chamber Music Society

Franz SCHUBERT (1797 – 1828)
Winterreise, D 911 [68:21]
Track listing below review
John Elwes (tenor), Kenneth Slowik (fortepiano)
rec. 21-22 November 2006, Ayreshire Farm, Upperville, Virginia, USA
Sung texts with English translations enclosed
FRIENDS OF MUSIC FOM 20-001 [68:24]

Experience Classicsonline

John Elwes has been around in musical circles literally for ages, making his recording debut as boy soprano soloist in 1960 at the age of 14 in the world premiere recording of Benjamin Britten’s Five Canticles by the side of Peter Pears and with the composer conducting. Since then he has participated in more than one hundred recordings. As recently as 2008 he was Grammy-nominated for a recording of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde in Arnold Schönberg’s reduction of the orchestral score. In other words he doesn’t fight shy of challenges off the beaten track. Schubert’s Winterreise is hardly off the beaten track but very much on it, but Elwes’s reading of the cycle is decidedly off in many respects.
Aged sixty when the recording was made he had kept his voice in good shape during a long and successful career, but there is no denying that the youthful bloom is gone. That in itself is no obstacle to a good interpretation of Winterreise, It is the expressivity, the depicting of emotions and the story telling that counts. Good enunciation of the text is a prerequisite for any Lieder singer and Elwes always sings off the words. It is also a reading from within; he is the lonely wanderer.
But something is missing? I can feel the unspoken question from my readers. No, not exactly missing. I would say there is rather too much. You feel it in the very first song Gute Nacht. The poet is not exactly in high spirits but he isn’t totally depressed either. Elwes’ poet is aggressive in his ferocious attack. And this is not an isolated phenomenon - it is a concept. It soon turns out that this is a Winterreise for those who prefer it tense – over-tense in many places – and angry. Even Der Lindenbaum, which initially depicts beautifully remembrances of dreams, is tense and dark. I admit that it is a thrilling journey, full of surprises and new insights, but it is not a comfortable one, not even for the listener. He often sacrifices beauty of tone for intensity and sometimes resorts to shouting and sliding up to notes.
In a way it is like hearing Mime in Wagner’s Ring, a character so filled with undelivered feelings, who distorts and cajoles the words and the music with tremendous power. The topical auction on 2 May 2012 of Munch’s painting The Scream had me thinking that John Elwes’s rejected lover is in the same state of mind. His is an expressionist reading and whatever faults there may be, the reading is not insensitive – quite the opposite. The misery in Einsamkeit, the pain that Die Post evokes, the nightmarish depiction of the village in Im Dorfe, the resignation before Das Wirtshaus, the resignation in Die Nebensonnen – there is a remarkable consistency throughout. In several ways this reading of Winterreise moved me more than any other version I have heard. I’m filled with respect and admiration for such a heart-on-the-sleeve approach. I felt drawn to it and repelled in the same breath. I know I will be returning to this disc – for my own sake as well for demonstration purposes: ‘This is another way of interpreting these songs.’
Tempos are not exceptional in either direction. I found on the internet a survey of a large number of recordings with total timings. They spanned from Oscar Scherwenka’s express journey at 60:19 to Thomas Quasthoff’s 82:33. At 68:24 John Elwes and his admirable accompanist Kenneth Slowik are slightly faster than the average tempo for the cycle. Kenneth Slowik, by the way, plays a fortepiano, on loan from Lambert Orkis, but I didn’t even notice that until I was to type the header.
Readers who are contemplating their first Winterreise should definitely look elsewhere: Hans Hotter, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Olaf Bär or, if you want a tenor, Peter Schreier, are safe buys to start with. If you already have one or several favourite recordings, the present disc is an interesting alternative. It may be shocking – but also stimulating.
Göran Forsling

Masterwork Index: Winterreise 

Track Listing

1. Gute Nacht [6:02]
2. Die Wetterfahne [1:38]
3. Gefror’ne Tränen [2:23]
4. Erstarrung [3:01]
5. Der Lindenbaum [4:08]
6. Wasserfluth [3:48]
7. Auf dem Flusse [3:14]
8. Rückblick [2:09]
9. Irrlicht [2:35]
10. Rast [3:31]
11. Frühlingstraum [3:45]
12. Einsamkeit [2:42]
13. Die Post [2:14]
14. Der greise Kopf [2:35]
15. Die Krähe [2:07]
16. Letzte Hoffnung [1:56]
17. Im Dorfe [3:10]
18. Der stürmische Morgen [0:52]
19. Täuschung [1:16]
20. Der Wegweiser [3:50]
21. Das Wirtshaus [4:09]
22. Mut! [1:28]
23. Die Nebensonnen [2:23]
24. Der Leiermann [3:11]









































































































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