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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Winterreise, op.89, D111 (1827) (transcr. for voice and string quartet by Richard Krug)
Johan Reuter (bass-baritone)
Copenhagen String Quartet (Eugene Tichindeleanu (violin), John Bak Dinitzen (violin), Bernd Rinne (viola), Richard Krug (cello))
rec. 14-17 June 2014 Operaen, Copenhagen, Denmark

Listeners of a certain age (60+) will, like me, most probably have been introduced to Winterreise by way of the iconic Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (1925-2012) Deutsche Grammophon edition released in 1972 (he was accompanied by Gerald Moore). Fischer-Dieskau recorded the work, with several pianists in 1955, 1963, 1966, 1972, 1980, 1986 and finally in 1990. Each version will have its enthusiasts. I remember being introduced to the original LP by a now highly-respected organist and professor of music. He regarded Winterreise as epitomising the genre: I have long-agreed with him - but see below for one ‘literary’ reservation.

Arkiv currently list 125 recordings of this masterpiece by various artists, with several ‘duplicates.’ It would take a Schubert Winterreise ‘groupy’ many pages to compare them all. I have lived for 44 years with Fischer-Dieskau: on LP, cassette, CD and download. It remains my bench-mark.

Just a few notes about Winterreise which may be of interest to anyone new to the song-cycle. Much of the work was composed during the spring of 1827 with the last ten songs written in the autumn of that year. There are 24 songs in total. The text is by the German poet Wilhelm Müller (1794-1827). Johann Mayrhofer (1787-1836) wrote that “Schubert had been ill for a long time, and had some unhappy experiences: the rosy gleam had disappeared from his life, and the winter had come to him in earnest. The poet’s despairing tone attracted him”. Interestingly, the correction of the proofs of Winterreise was one of the last tasks the composer undertook before his death during the following year.

The theme of the cycle is that of a young man who has been jilted in love and chooses to wander through a wintery landscape. The underlying mood of the music is utterly melancholic. For modern tastes the poet probably overeggs the thoughts of madness and death resulting from his lack of success in romance. He clearly forgets that there ‘are other fish in the sea.’ Not all the songs share the mood of desolation. The opening number is a case in point. This is more an affectionate reminiscence of love born in May and lost as winter approaches. ‘Der Lindenbaum’, which is the most popular number in the cycle, also catches this slightly more optimistic mood. It is often recorded as a solo song. ‘Die Post’ is full of hope, as the singer hears the post horn and vainly anticipates a letter from his beloved. Even the final poem, which presents a Hurdy Gurdy Man, is not all desolation. There is a strange, ghostly beauty about this song that suggests that there can be salvation for the singer after all. Music making may assuage his pain.

My only reservation about this great song-cycle is that the poems can sometimes be a little overblown and overly sentimental in their conventional depiction of love lost. Sir Compton Mackenzie once suggested that much of the imagery is more akin to a Victorian Christmas or Valentine Day card: none, he declared, reach the literary heights of Robert Burns’ O my Luve's Like a Red, Red Rose’ or ‘Ae fond Kiss’. He (and I, as Scots, or in Mackenzie’s case a de facto Scot) may be biased!

The liner notes give a brief resumé of Schubert’s career followed by a short introduction to the music. The biographical details of bass-baritone Johan Reuter and the Copenhagen Quartet are also given. The text of the poems is presented in German only. I understand that these songs are well-known, but this may be some listener’s first approach to these works. It is possible to find various translations on the internet, but many are copyright.

I have been bowled over by Johan Reuter’s stunning performance on this present CD. The singing is excellent and is consistently responsive to the changing moods of the poems. I have always preferred Winterreise sung by a baritone and not a tenor. There ought to be ‘something of the night’ about the singer’s delivery of most of these pessimistic and melancholic songs. Reuter certainly brings this ‘saturnine’ quality to the work.

I had never heard Winterreise accompanied by a string quartet before. I understand that there are other editions for this format available. Despite still preferring a piano accompaniment this present version is a revelation. There is, as one online reviewer noted about a similar arrangement, a danger that the song-cycle can become a string quartet accompanied by a singer. This is not the case with the Copenhagen Quartet cellist’s splendid reworking of the piano part. The quartet adds a luminescence and clarity to the music that is (by instrumental definition) lacking in the piano version. It is a completely viable alternative that I will turn to on many occasions.

John France



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