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Franz Peter SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Winterreise, D.911
Pavol Breslik (tenor)
Amir Katz (piano)
rec. live, 5-7 September 2018, Markus-Sittikus-Saal, Hohenems, Austria
ORFEO C934191 [74:35]

Pavol Breslik and Amir Katz released a much-admired recording of Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin in 2015 for Orfeo and here they follow up with Winterreise for the same label. The earlier issue was a studio recording, but this was caught live at Hohenems, home of the prestigious Schubert Festival. Breslik has a splendid voice, youthful and virile, with an appealing basic timbre, and is much in demand in the opera house, but has also pursued lieder singing alongside his stage career. This might explain the quality of drama he brings to his singing here.

Gute Nacht opens of course with those trudging quavers to set the walking pace – this winter journey is on foot – marked ‘moderate’, and piano. Breslik’s entry though is closer to a hearty forte, and again at the start of each verse, especially the third. But after the entrancing switch to the major mode before the fourth verse, Breslik shows he is quite capable of well controlled and expressive quieter singing. Perhaps he was still gauging the volume needed for the hall when full, but it takes a few songs for this performance to settle down.

Breslik has many attractive colours in his voice as Gefrorne Tränen demonstrates. But Winterreise is a work of quiet introspection much of the time, with all but three of the twenty-four songs opening piano or pianissimo, and Breslik tends to let the volume rise on longer note in the upper range. That operatic effect is not always unwelcome of course, and the sense of existential dread producing a howl of protest is not inappropriate. Impeccable lieder manners can sometimes legitimately take a back seat in a dramatic presentation. “Winterreise is a dramatic event” wrote Graham Johnson, and that is how Breslik and Katz present it here.

In Der Lindenbaum, the only song one of Schubert’s friends liked on first hearing them all, they are attentive to the dynamics (which range from ppp to forte) and phrase beautifully. And in Auf dem Flusse the ppp and sehr leise (“very soft”) markings are also spot on, without any sense of affectation, and from both musicians. Frühlingstraum is a true “Dream of Spring” glimpsed in midwinter, with lovely singing and playing for the exquisite third and sixth verses, the latter with its aching question “When shall I hold my beloved in my arms?”, its pain not unconnected to the fact that our traveller has no beloved, as far as we can know.

Der Post launches the second part with a jauntiness that is not overdone (too jaunty and it can sound out of place in this sombre work). Perhaps because this is a live performance (or ‘performances’ given the stated recording dates span three days) it seems to grow in eloquence and involvement as it proceeds – and is far from uninvolving to start with. Amir Katz is much more than an ‘accompanist’ here, as he must be. The opening of Der stürmische Morgen evokes that “stormy morning” without making us feel we have been transported to a piano recital, and the dancing opening of Täuschung trips perfectly along.

In the cathartic sequence of the final four songs Breslik and Katz spare do not spare us. The extended metaphor of Das Wirtshaus (“The Inn” – which is a cemetery with no ‘rooms’ left) is the one text set to music which is religious in feeling. Breslik finds the right kind of piety within its hymnic manner, and Katz is liturgically uplifting in the noble coda. Mut! is “lustig” indeed – Breslik imparts just the right defiant emphasis to that word. In Die Nebensonnen Breslik’s hollowed out tone for the tragic final couplet tells us much about the deadly emptiness of feeling in the protagonist. Der Leiermann’s expressive expressionlessness closes the cycle leaving us with the kind of numbness that marks out some of the best recordings.

There is a particular appeal to German tenors above all in this work. The extra gloom of the lower male voices can be strangely counter-productive for all the achievement of singers such as Matthias Goerne and Florian Boesch. Breslik is a Slovak, but his German is mostly pretty good, his voice is near ideal, and he seems to have set down his interpretation at the right time – while he has plenty of experience in lieder singing but the voice still has all the sap and colour needed for the work. Hence this fine account of the greatest of all song cycles will sit alongside Germans tenors Peter Schreier and Christoph Prégardien, and the similarly dramatic Jonas Kaufmann. The favourite Winterreise CD shelf is a long one, but Breslik and Katz are worthy of a place upon it.

Roy Westbrook

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