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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Winterreise, Op. 89, D 911
Johannes Held (baritone)
Daniel Beskow (piano)
rec. 2018, Wavegarden Studio, Germany
Sung texts enclosed

A survey of total timings for a number of Winterreise recordings I did some years ago showed a surprisingly wide timespan, from 60:19 (Scherwenka) to 82:33 (Quasthoff). But total timing is just one criterion for judging the character of a reading. The timing of individual songs can also differ considerably, even though 82:33 clearly indicates generally slow readings. Apart from Scherwenka and Quasthoff, who are the extremes, the average timings hover a bit over 70 minutes. Among a dozen or so recordings I’ve reviewed fairly recently the span was between 66:37 (Skovhus) and 78:47 (Coote) – the latter however a live recording from Wigmore Hall with the final applause included, so in reality it was a bit shorter. Johannes Held clocks in at 73:53, which indicates a middle-of-the-road approach, and that is also the general impression of the reading. Middle-of-the-road may sound watered down or impersonal. It isn’t – but it is free from idiosyncrasies and extremes in either direction which also includes over-interpretation. Readers who for various reasons fight shy of Fischer-Dieskau when he is at his most interventionistic, can rest assured that this middle-of-the-road reading is a safe way to travel. Road safety and song interpretation are obviously not always compatible quantities.

Held and Beskow set the seal from the very beginning. Where for instance Hermann Prey sings Gute Nacht energetically and rather foursquare, they deliver a contemplative reading with fine nuances. Wetterfahne is rather inward but rhythmically taut. Lindenbaum is sung simply, like a folksong, which it has become, until they reach “Die kalten Winde blasen”, which is dark and foreboding. But the lyrical mood is retained in the last stanza, which is performed almost whispering. Held’s general approach has a rather low profile, as I already have intimated, but he spices the reading with sensitive dramatic outbursts: the nervousness of Rückblick, The lightness and warmth of Frühlingstraum, the intensity of Einsamkeit, the vitality of Der stürmische Morgen, the deeply felt Der Wegweiser and in Der Wirtshaus one can clearly hear that the power of life has runneth out – very touching! Mut is the last attempt to return to life, but in Die Nebensonnen we know that the wanderer is already halfway on the other side, which is conformed in Der Leiermann.

This is a sound and likeable reading of this oft-recorded cycle, well sung and expertly accompanied. The recorded sound cannot be faulted. In the liner notes by Johannes Held we learn that the duo has worked together for several years and developed a staged version of the cycle with sets in a large bag which allows the productions to be presented in any possible setting. To date it has been performed staged more than fifty times in four years. But heard here without the visual aspects it is a fully valid performance in its own rights. Held concludes the notes: “This is not our last word on Winterreise. It’s a snapshot in time.” Be that as it may, it is a very likeable performance that should appeal to a wide audience.

Göran Forsling

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