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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Winterreise D911 (arranged for female voices by Maurice Lammerts van Bueren) [73:53]
Coco Collectief
Maurice Lammerts van Bueren (piano)
rec. 2017, MCO1 Hilversum, Netherlands
Texts in German and Dutch
ETCETERA KTC1592 [73:53]

Schubert’s Winterriese has been heard and seen in many versions over the years, in different solo male voice types from tenor to bass, female soloists, orchestrations and even dramatisations. There are two good reasons for this: universality and validity. First, why should such a universal and powerful tale be restricted to just the type of voice and pitch of the original score? Secondly, it sounds perfectly valid in other guises. The music’s strengths, like that of JS Bach, are such that it survives translation and transposition. Here we have a rather different Winterriese from a gifted group of Dutch musicians which shows us yet another perspective and is rather more than a mere curiosity.

The vocal line – or lines, in most of these songs – is sung by Coco Collectief, a group of five female singers, all professional soloists in their own right but who also work as an ensemble. The pianist, Maurice Lammerts van Bueren, accompanies the group and has also made the arrangements. He explains in the booklet just what that meant to him:
“When the Coco Collectief decided to present their version of Die Winterreise, it was immediately clear that an arrangement for five female singers would be completely different from the original... How different, though, should it be? Should the arrangements differ greatly from Schubert in style, or should I respect his style closely? I decided upon the latter option.”

So the arrangement is stylistically respectful, but still has plenty of creativity, especially in terms of vocal texture. Only eight of the twenty-four songs of the cycle involve all five singers and the pianist. Five of the songs remain as written for one solo voice and piano, one for each of the five singers. One of the songs, number six Wasserflut (’Flood’), has no singer at all, but is arranged for solo piano and so becomes a Schubertian “song without words”. As if to restore the balance, van Bueren then leaves the piano out of number twenty Der Wegweiser (‘The Signpost’), arranging it for the five women a cappella. Vocal duets and trios with piano make up the rest. Using up to five singers inevitably means adding extra notes that are not in the original, but these are derived from the original harmonies. The piano part is virtually unchanged, except of course for that solo Wasserflut, where the vocal line has to be put into the instrumental part.

The most strikingly inventive arrangement – if that term still applies – comes at the end of the seventh song Auf dem Flusse (‘On the River’). In the poem, the heartbroken narrator writes his beloved’s name in the icy crust of the frozen river (a nice symbol of doomed love delaying until the spring thaw when it must finally disappear). The fifth and final stanza opens with:
Mein Herz, in diesem Bache/Erkennst du nun dein Bild?
(My heart, in this river/Do you now see your image?)

This verse is repeated twice in Schubert’s setting, and the arranger takes the opportunity in those repetitions of having the other four singers reproachfully repeat “Erkennst du nun dein Bild?” like the voice of one’s conscience. It is a small, but effective addition, typical of the mainly unobtrusive sensitivity of this arrangement.  Thus, in number twenty-one, the singers all join in (wordlessly) with the accompaniment between the verses, to touching effect. Each such small intervention has its own emotional logic, and at no point did I feel that the original had been subverted, and certainly not perverted. The aim of respecting the original musically and dramatically, while bringing a quite different vocal texture to most of the songs, seems to me to have been very successfully achieved. There is certainly nothing here to frighten the horses, or upset any but the most unbending of Schubertian purists.

Coco Collectief has also apparently presented its arrangement of Winterreise in a staging by Marc Pantus, first performed during the winter of 2016, when it was a sell-out and very well received by the press, so it is not surprising that they sound completely at home in the music, with none of the tentativeness or restraint that might come from too much ‘respect’ for a masterpiece. They make no attempt at a choral sound but always keep their identities as individual singers. In the solo songs, they each acquit themselves very creditably, although no one of the singers quite made me think, “I wish she had sung the whole cycle alone” – which would be against the spirit of the enterprise, in any case. They listen and respond to each other when they need to, like good chamber musicians, and are very attuned to the great interior drama that the work gradually reveals. No doubt this came from the experience of performing their version on stage, as theatre.

The sound is near ideal for the scale of such a performance, and the booklet is illuminating on aspects of the arrangement. Every singer contributes a note on her favourite song. At one point, the arranger seems to have taken his notes from the programme accompanying those staged performances, as he says of his piano solo version of Wasserflut that, “In the cycle as a whole it provides a moment of repose, during which the singers create a snowy carpet out of shreds of paper”. I should like to see that staging, if ever they revive it – perhaps we could have been told more about it in the booklet. The song texts are given in German and in Dutch, but there is no English translation.

So what does one look for in a recording of Winterreise? About five years ago I went to a fine performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, and then just three days later to hear Wofgang Holzmair and Andreas Haefliger perform Winterreise. It was the latter that, quite unexpectedly, was the more shattering experience. This engrossing and enjoyable performance from Coco Collectief does not quite achieve that impact, but very few recordings can be expected to. What it does is to renew one’s admiration for Schubert’s astonishing achievement. His and Müller’s winter journey takes us into psychologically dark and difficult places – it can be faintly embarrassing at the end of a live performance to realise one is in a public space and required to engage in the ritual of applause. The poems are all in the first person singular, so the soloist – in a traditional performance with just one singer – impersonates the emotionally damaged traveller, and one is a witness to his pain. Hearing it sung by a group modifies and mollifies that impersonation and replaces it with a collective narrative about some un-named person no one of them represents. It is a more akin to a Greek chorus telling us things from the past we need to understand, but we are at one remove, not forced to bear witness to a terrible disintegration. It is that distancing, rather than the business of arranging Schubert’s score, that is the real difference here. So no matter how many recordings of the cycle you have – and we Winterreise obsessives can always find room for one more – this one will be very well worth investigating.

Roy Westbrook

 

 



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