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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Winter Journey (Winterreise D911 in an English version by Jeremy Sams)
Roderick Williams (baritone), Christopher Glynn (piano)
rec. 2017, St Silas Church, Kentish Town, London
English text included

Schubert’s great Wilhelm Müller cycle appears here in a brand new English version by Jeremy Sams. Note that Sams’ work is described as a “version” rather than a “translation”: as we shall see, that’s an important distinction. It was commissioned by Christopher Glynn for the Ryedale Festival, of which he is Artistic Director, and was first performed at the Festival in July 2016.

In fact, Christopher Glynn commissioned Sams to translate all three of the Schubert cycles – I’ll refer to Schwanengesang as a cycle for ease of reference. I believe that recordings of the other two cycles are to follow and according to a comment that I spotted on the Rydale Festival website it would seem that the singers in the other two cycles will be Toby Spence and Sir John Tomlinson.

Professional performance of Lieder in the vernacular used to be quite common in Britain in the first half of the twentieth century but the practice has largely died out. So, Christopher Glynn’s project might be said to be re-treading old ground. The essence of this project is to facilitate direct communication with the listener. Christopher Glynn has written of his hope that this English version of Winterreise “can offer English-speaking listeners a way to experience the story’s sense alongside the music’s sound, with something of the same directness that Schubert surely intended when he sat down at the piano in 1827 and sang these songs for the first time to his friends”. I’m unsurprised that Roderick Williams has been involved in this project because I’m well aware how much he values communication between singer and audience. I recall a recital that he gave in Hereford at the 2012 Three Choirs Festival. As is customary at Three Choirs all the sung texts were printed in the programme. When he took to the stage after the interval Williams addressed the audience and asked in a way that could have given offence to no one if we would all close our books so that our heads were not buried in the programme as he sang to us. Of course, when one is listening to a recording at home the issue of following the words as the singer performs falls away.

Jeremy Sams brings huge experience to the task of producing an English performing version of Winterreise. He’s a composer himself, not least in the fields of film and theatre, and he’s made a number of significant operatic translations, including works by Mozart and Wagner for English National Opera. Nonetheless, the scale of the challenge set for him by Christopher Glynn should not be underestimated. It must be hard enough to produce an accurate and poetic English translation “simply” for reading – I think, for example, of Richard Wigmore’s marvellous translations of Schubert Lieder – but Sams has to go even further. His responsibility is to produce an English version that stays faithful at least to the spirit if not the letter of Wilhelm Müller’s poems and one, moreover, that makes good sense when sung and which adheres as closely as possible to Schubert’s vocal line. That’s a pretty daunting list of requirements and Sams has certainly succeeded in fidelity to Schubert’s vocal line with very few alterations to note values that I could detect. Has he been equally successful in conveying the spirit and story of Müller’s texts?

I must say that the first couple of times I listened to this recording I was somewhat dubious. At times I wondered if Sams’ version was not just too polite, too nice in tone. Also, there were a number of instances where Sams’ use of modern English usage seemed to jar somewhat. However, my appreciation of his efforts increased significantly when I sat down and listened to the cycle not with the Signum booklet in front of me but, instead, a booklet from another CD that contains the original German texts and Richard Wigmore’s fine English translation. That exercise confirmed that Sams’ version is not a word-for-word translation of the German poems but, when I came to read the listening notes I had made against each song I found that in the majority of cases I had scribbled comments to the effect that the Sams version “works”.

There are only a few instances where I seriously part company with him. I’m afraid I find his version of ‘Die Krähe’ rather misconceived. Müller’s poem, and Schubert’s setting of it, has always seemed to me to have a sinister tone to it – and anyone who has heard Peter Schreier sing it will surely agree. Indeed, the very pronunciation of the German noun invites that interpretation. Richard Wigmore’s translation of Müller’s second stanza in particular brings out the carrion nature of a crow’s behaviour. But in Sams’ version the bird is portrayed as a faithful, even genial travelling companion, nowhere more so than in the second verse of his rendition of the poem where Sams has the traveller saying: “Thank you/Good to know you’re here./Here to reassure me….” I’m sorry, but I just think that jaunty version is completely at odds with Müller’s poem.

I’m not quite sure why Sams entitles the sixth song, (‘Wasserflut’) as ‘Life Cycle’. Müller’s poem uses the imagery of Winter giving way to Spring, which Sams mirrors successfully but I would have thought the English title, ‘Flood’, which Wigmore employs, would have sufficed. Equally, I can’t understand why it was necessary to render ‘Das Wirtshaus’ as ‘No room at the Inn’. In ‘The Post’ Sams’ version makes reference to the young man’s sweetheart as the “blushing bride” though Müller’s poem doesn’t specifically say that she has married. I think, though, that here Sams’ poetic licence makes good narrative sense.

One or two reservations aside, for the most part I felt that Sams’ English language version works well and tells the story cogently, respecting the spirit of Müller’s poetic story.

The performance itself is a fine one. Signum print all the texts in the booklet but, frankly, that gesture, though welcome, is rendered almost superfluous by Roderick Williams’ exemplary diction. He and Christopher Glynn are perceptive winter travellers. When I first listened to ‘Goodnight’ I wondered momentarily if Williams’ singing was not just a bit too smooth but I soon came to appreciate, on further acquaintance, how in this song he increases the intensity of his narrative without compromising the even line. ‘The Weather Vane’ receives a dramatic, turbulent performance from both artists and in ‘Frozen Solid’ (‘Erstarrung’) Williams is very successful in putting across the increasing desperation of the young man. ‘On the river’, a good rendition of Müller’s words, receives a highly characterful and very nuanced performance.
A little later in the cycle, in ‘Rest’ both Sams’ English version and Williams’ performance of it make it clear that the traveller is experiencing a very troubled rest: he may be resting physically, but definitely not mentally. In ‘The Grey Head’ Roderick Williams treats us to wonderfully controlled and expressive singing. It’s not Jeremy Sams’ fault that in the opening line of ‘In the Village’ English words (‘The guard-dogs are growling’) can’t convey quite the same menace as the German words (‘Es bellen die Hünde’). However, Sams’ English text conveys overall the unwelcoming nature of the village very well and, as so often in the cycle, Williams brings the words to life. The last few, masterly songs in the cycle are successful, I think, in Sams’ version; and the performances by Williams and Glynn are very fine indeed. One detail that caught my ear was that at the start of ‘The Hurdy-gurdy man’ Glynn achieves the drone effect in the piano part as well as anyone I’ve heard.

This, then, is a fine and perceptive performance of Schubert’s great song cycle. Roderick Williams sings the songs with great understanding and empathy. His singing per se gives consistent pleasure and, as I commented a moment ago, he consistently brings the words vividly to life, which is crucial, no matter what the language. Christopher Glynn is an excellent partner. They’ve been well recorded in a sympathetic acoustic by engineer Dave Rowell and producer Nicholas Parker.

The sixty-four-thousand-dollar question is: does the English version work? I will readily confess that I was sceptical at first but largely I’ve been won over. As a matter of preference, I’d want to hear the songs in the original German, whether on disc or in live performance. But there’s no doubt that the English version conveys the story and the emotions of the young traveller with great immediacy. Since singing is all about communication with the listener Jeremy Sams here demonstrates that, just as in opera, there’s a place for vernacular performance of art songs, provided the vernacular version is crafted with sympathy and understanding, as is definitely the case here. This English version should win new admirers for Schubert’s great cycle and may also encourage singers who may be daunted by the prospect of twenty-four songs in German to essay them in English.

The value of Sams’ efforts was brought home to me, quite by chance, just a couple of days before I finalised this review, I was in conversation with a friend, a highly experienced singer, and, unprompted by me, he mentioned that he had recently heard these artists perform Winter Journey in concert. My friend is very conversant with the songs in German and his reaction to hearing them sung in English was somewhat equivocal. However, he related that his companion at the concert, also a very experienced musician but not a singer, wasn’t too familiar with Winterreise and she found that hearing the songs in English enhanced her understanding and appreciation of the cycle significantly. Her experience, I think, vindicates the Sams English version.

One final thought. Though I have enjoyed this disc I do hope that the fact that Roderick Williams has recorded this cycle in English won’t preclude him from making a recording in the original German before too long.

John Quinn