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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Florian Boesch (baritone)
Roger Vignoles (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, 2016
HYPERION CDA68197 [70:55]

This is a personal and deeply moving Winterreise from two musical titans giving of their very best. What characterises their reading most is its profound subtlety and psychological insight. Like all great art, Schubert’s great cycle lends itself to a multiplicity of interpretations, be they anger, frustration, desperation or loss, with the occasional possibility of sunlight in between. However, Roger Vignoles and Florian Boesch pitch their tent in the realm of wistful regret and a profound sense of loss, creating something that is as memorable as it is powerful, and making a very moving experience.

It’s there right in the first song. Vignoles’ piano underpins Gute Nacht with a steady tread that is insistent but never dominant, suggesting a world of pain in the poet’s footsteps that is as inescapable as the landscape around him, even when things sweeten delightfully in the major key towards the end. Meanwhile Boesch sings the words of the cycle’s longest song with a feeling of weary pain: it’s contained and internalised, full more of disappointment than rage, but no less powerful for that.

There is anger later in songs like Die Wetterfahne, but it’s never quite allowed to overwhelm the sense of wistfulness and regret (even though it comes close at the end of Gefrorne Tränen). That sense of a love lost is alway there, and powerfully so. He communes powerfully with both the snow (in Wasserflut) and the river (in Auf dem Flusse where, at times, he is so soft as to be barely audible). It’s never an excuse for indolence, though: there is always energy in the songs, most obviously in rapid numbers like Rückblick, but even behind ostensibly static songs like Irrlicht there is a sense of crackling energy held in restraint by the poet’s overpowering grief. The exceptions to that are songs like Rast where the poet is compelled to come to terms with his physical and emotional exhaustion.

The other great theme of the cycle, the longing for rest, comes across equally powerfully. Der Lindenbaum proceeds at a fairly lively tempo, and Boesch snatches an occasional grace note to suggest some elusory gemütlichkeit; at times there is even a softening of his tone that poignantly hints at a comfort that he cannot attain. The contrast between major and minor is powerfully realised in Frühlingstraum, and Einsamkeit plumbs real depths at the mid-point of the cycle. Der greise Kopf feels particularly existential in its longing for release from life.

Throughout, Vignoles’ piano line is every inch the equal part of Boesch’s voice, making me wonder who came up with the interpretative ideas, so equally they seem matched. The crow circles hypnotically overhead, while the hum of the village quivers between a welcome and a threat. The hymn-like chords of Das Wirtshaus create a desperately conflicted image of both prayerfulness and spiritual isolation,

The final section, starting with Der Wegweiser takes an even more profound plunge into the dark, that song tailing off into evocative nothingness, while Das Wirtshaus resemble an anguished whisper throughout. Die Nebensonnen stares into the abyss, its major key sounding almost ironic, and the encounter with the hurdy-gurdy man brings no comfort, only more desperate unanswered questions. It left me deeply moved at the end of a profoundly powerful musical journey (and it can’t have done any harm that there was snow on the ground outside while I was listening).

I can’t remember the last time I heard a Winterreise this powerful, particularly from a baritone. Ian Bostridge and Paul Lewis came close, but I’m intrinsically inclined towards a baritone voice in this repertoire, partly for reasons of personal taste, but also because I think the lower voice suits the colour of the songs (and the mood) just that little bit better. Olaf Bär, whose interpretation I’ve always enjoyed, doesn’t quite match the power of Boesch here, and his pianist isn’t quite up to Vignoles’ level. There’s always Fischer-Dieskau, of course, and Hotter (more a bass than a baritone by 1950) brings an authority that is utterly unique. In terms of recent recordings, however, I’m inclined to put this pretty near the top. It’s a remarkable achievement, and it merits another bravo thanks to Hyperion’s excellent recording and super booklet notes, containing full texts and translations (of course) and a marvellous essay from Richard Wigmore. Altogether superb.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: John Quinn

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