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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Winterreise D.911 [69:16]
Mark Padmore (tenor)
Kristian Bezuidenhout (fortepiano)
rec. 2017, Doopsgezinde Haarlem, Netherlands
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902264 [69:16]

Harmonia Mundi’s catalogue already boasts one Winterreise from Padmore, issued in 2009. That was with Paul Lewis on a Steinway, and won a Gramophone award. On this new version the accompanist is Kristian Bezuidenhout on a Graf fortepiano. His instrument affords many delights, and is presumably closer to that Schubert used when composing. It’s hard now to realise that if the great Franz Peter himself returned to us, it is the modern concert grand that he would regard as the amazing curiosity. And as usual, once past the initial reminder of a pub upright that the first hearing of an old instrument can give, it soon becomes acceptable, and then convincing. It helps of course if the fortepianist is as skilled as Kristian Bezuidenhout. There are other ‘authentic’ touches too, such as some spreading of chords in the fortepiano part (even in the first song), and occasional discreet decoration from both musicians.

Mark Padmore’s well-known and much admired interpretation is much as before, with one important exception – it’s swifter, enough to shave five minutes off the 2009 version’s time of 74:18. That might not sound much but it is clearly noticeable in say the first song (5:46 versus 6:13) and the very last one (3:37 versus 4:10), as well as several of those in between. The voice is still in fine shape. Here and there Padmore’s tone has a bit less sap than a decade ago, and once or twice, for instance in Erstarrung and in Die Post, he sounds vocally more taxed than last time around. But Winterreise is much more than a showcase for beautiful lieder singing, and most of the time the control of line and tone are impeccable, and the tenor’s insight into this most demanding of song cycles is undiminished, an inner winter journey delineated with unflinching commitment. Schubert’s friends felt uncomfortable when they first heard these songs, and it should be ever thus. We are forced to bear witness to an individual’s inexorable disintegration. I feel this one might even usurp the version with Paul Lewis, superb as that is, even without the added value of an accompaniment from an instrument of the time.

For those allergic to such an instrument (and I know they are probably the majority still), one moment you should try to hear is the opening of the last song, Der Leiermann. Schubert evokes the hurdy-gurdy’s characteristic drone with a bleak bare fifth (A-E), preceded by a D sharp grace note. Bezuidenhout somehow produces from his Graf a sort of buzzing twang, which persists throughout of course (minus the grace note), a musically sublime evocation of non-music, a portrayal of the vacant nihilism to which the wanderer has now succumbed. Padmore’s bleached tone has the same effect and the final group of songs in the cycle is unpitying in interpretation and thus pitiful in its final impact. The earlier Padmore version is powerful too of course, but the familiar Steinway is a more comfortable presence, and this is comfortless music.

But the comparison is not really with Padmore and Lewis therefore as with a much earlier favourite version with fortepiano, Christoph Prégardien’s 1997 Teldec disc with Andreas Staier on a Johann Fritz instrument from about 1825. That has similar virtues in the accompaniment, and of course the tenor is one of the great Schubertians. His Winterreise is one of the best also, and its deceptive straightforwardness might even make the more interventionist Padmore seem mannered by comparison. Prégardien’s native German is also an advantage. And if you are among the fortepiano enthusisasts, then you should hear Jan van Elsacker’s version on Evil Penguin Records from 2014. His accompanist Tom Beghin has a Viennese fortepiano with five pedals, which gives a number of effects such as tinkling bells in Die Post, and an open fifth to launch Der Leiermann like no other, the strangest hurdy-gurdy that ever haunted the outskirts of old Vienna.

We Winterreise obsessives need all these discs, and will be glad to add this new version from Mark Padmore and Kristian Bezuidenhout to the shelf, and quite often to the drawer of the CD player. There is a good booklet note and full texts and English translations of the poems. One final proviso relates to the recording. The acoustic is a little too reverberant, and the image a touch distant. This is a pity, since another advantage of a period instrument over a modern one is to remind us of the domestic or small hall setting Schubert wrote for. But this sounds a little as if it is in a large empty space. So if such things really matter to you it will best to download one or two songs – I’d suggest the first and last - and sample those before committing to the whole set.

Roy Westbrook

Previous review: Simon Thompson

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