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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1831) Winterreise, D911 (1828)
Florian Boesch (baritone)
Roger Vignoles (piano)
rec. 2016, Potton Hall, Dunwich. Suffolk.
German texts and English translations included HYPERION CDA68197 [70:55]
Some five years ago I admired a recording of Winterreise by Florian Boesch (review). Now he has returned to Schubert’s great song cycle but with a different pianist and in a different recording location.
It’s been fascinating to compare and contrast the two readings, including the making of immediate A/B comparisons. I wouldn’t say that Boesch has completely re-thought his interpretation but it’s clear that he has considered each song very carefully and deeply. Many of the differences between the two recordings concern matters of detail and nuance. In quite a number of the songs the pace is marginally swifter on the Hyperion disc but only in one song, ‘Der Leiermann’, is the difference in pacing truly significant. Listening to this new version and taking the opportunity to revisit Boesch’s earlier recording has reminded me forcibly just how fine and intelligent an interpreter of Lieder he is. I’m not going to consider every one of the twenty-four songs individually but I hope that what I have the say about selected songs will stand as representative of Boesch’s two performances of this masterpiece.
To begin, therefore, at the beginning. ‘Gute Nacht’ is taken at a steady, very natural pace. It’s not a weary trudge, as one hears in some performances. Such treatment is a shade premature, I always think. Boesch and Vignoles seem to me to get things just right. Boesch’s delivery is easy and smooth. Rightly, he is a bit more emphatic at the start of the third stanza and I love the way that he eases into the final stanza. Turning to the Onyx recording, I think there’s even more variety of expression in Boesch’s singing – not that variety is lacking in the Hyperion performance. I also detect even more evidence of subtly-applied rubato on the Onyx disc, much of it stemming from Malcolm Martineau.
In ‘Gefror’ne Tränen’ Boesch deploys an admirable range of expression and vocal colours as he responds to the text acutely. In the Onyx performance this song is a fraction more measured in pace. In both performances Boesch is highly expressive in his treatment of ‘Der Lindenbaum’. Some may think that his way with the more troubled episodes is too “interventionist”. If so, I can understand that view but it works for me. I find that Boesch’s very imaginative approach draws the listener in – and on. His Onyx reading is fractionally slower overall. The performance of ‘Wasserflut’ is daringly expansive in the Onyx version. This time round Boesch and Vignoles aren’t quite so measured but even so they give a searching account of the song.
Boesch takes ‘Auf dem Flusse’ rather more quickly in his Hyperion version – and beneficially so, I think. The somewhat swifter pace is particularly helpful because it enables him and his pianist to inject more urgency into the last three stanzas than was the case on his previous recording.
‘Frühlingstraum’ is another conspicuous success. Boesch and Vignoles bring a beguiling innocence to the first stanza, then verse two is harsher in tone before the air of sehnsucht is beautifully conveyed in the third stanza. Then the pattern is repeated for the remaining three stanzas. The principal contrast with the Onyx performance is that there the third and sixth stanzas are treated more expansively
I welcome the way Boesch drains the colour from his voice in the first two stanzas of ‘Einsamkeit’. As a result, the contrast with the much more forthright final verse is all the more marked. Boesch is very intense and daring both in his pacing and his use of colour in ‘Der greise Kopf’. The second line of the last verse is especially remarkable as he sings “Ward mancher Kopf zum Greise” (Many a head has turned grey). The Onyx performance is taken slightly more broadly and is, if anything, even more searching.
‘Das Wirtshaus’ is about the only example of a song lasting for longer on the Hyperion disc. Vignoles’ piano playing is spellbinding at the start – not that Martineau falls short in the earlier recording - and Boesch’s singing is utterly compelling. The performers create a still, spare ambience that is really potent. I especially appreciated the wonderfully withdrawn way in which Boesch delivers the third stanza; for all the many merits of his Onyx reading he doesn’t quite match there the achievement of his new performance at this point. He builds the last stanza incrementally so that the repetition of the last two lines is suitably resolute.
The performance of ‘Die Nebensonnen’ is masterly on both discs. Here I find it impossible to choose between these two profound readings. Boesch displays a wonderful command of line on both occasions while both Martineau and Vignoles impress greatly, not least with the depth of tone that each conjures from their respective pianos.
However, I do have a preference when it comes to ‘Der Leiermann’. In the Hyperion version, which plays for 3:32, Boesch delivers Schubert’s bare, deceptively simple vocal lines with bleached tone. It’s a very fine performance but the Onyx version is finer still. You’ll appreciate the greater spaciousness of that performance when I tell you that it plays for 4:36. But the success of the Boesch/Martineau account is about more than pacing. At their slower speed, and displaying masterly control, they conjure up a vison that is even more otherworldly than the one we experience on the Hyperion disc. For me it’s the Onyx reading of this extraordinary Lied that comes closer to what Richard Wigmore describes in his notes as the “transfigured bleakness” that we find in the last few songs in Winterreise.
So, where does all this leave us and which is the better Florian Boesch version – whatever “better” may mean. I’ve tried to identify some points of difference which may sway the prospective purchaser one way or the other. However, with the exception of ’Der Leiermann’ I think the differences are more a case of subtle nuances – ‘Irrlicht’ offers a case in point. Some of these subtle changes will have come about as a result of Florian Boesch’s deep reflection on the cycle and, indeed, as a result of his performing experience since making his first recording. I’m sure, too, that some of the differences of emphasis result from the stimulus of working with two highly experienced master pianists, each of whom must have performed this cycle countless times.
Pushed to a verdict, I think Boesch was somewhat more daring in his earlier interpretation and I like that. I also have the most marginal preference for Malcolm Martineau’s playing but that’s a very close call indeed; Roger Vignoles is as stylish and insightful as you’d expect on the new disc. So fine are the margins between the two recordings that, for me, choice comes down to a single song: the exceptional performance of ’Der Leiermann’ on the Onyx disc seals the deal for me. If you have that disc then I think you can rest content, though you’ll find it very rewarding to experience also Florian Boesch’s later thoughts on Winterreise. However, if you chose to invest in the new Hyperion recording a probing and truly excellent listening experience awaits you. Of one thing I am certain: all lovers of Schubert Lieder should have in their collections at least one recording of Winterreise by Florian Boesch.
It remains only to say that Hyperion have recorded the performance beautifully, achieving an excellent balance between singer and piano. The booklet is a typically fine Hyperion production, graced by notes from Richard Wigmore