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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Ian Bostridge (tenor)
Thomas Adès (piano)
rec. live, September 2018, Wigmore Hall, London
PENTATONE PTC5186764 [72:26]

Before listening to this disc I watched a video performance of Winterreise by Ian Bostridge from the 2016 Festival Utrecht. The one outstanding visual aspect one can notice about him is how utterly immersed and passionate he becomes in this work. Actually, just listening to it would, though, convey that sense as well. That’s quite the case here with his new recording, his third of Winterreise. It is this engrossed, committed manner in his singing of this famous lieder cycle that has generated a good measure of controversy over the years in his more than one hundred live performances, especially in the more recent ones. His probing of textual matters to impart new and different nuancing in his phrasing has often resulted in some listeners and critics to view him as quirky, idiosyncratic and even extreme. Technically his singing is amazing in how it communicates what he sees in the music and text: he goes all out and delivers a performance that becomes an experience to behold, not just a fine recital of great music. Bostridge, by the way, is the author of the book Schubert's Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession. Obviously he knows this work well.

But does he step beyond the boundaries and impose a personal eccentricity onto the music? Well, every good interpreter places an individual stamp on a performance to one degree or other, but in the end, I don’t find Bostridge’s effort here extreme or a case of stretching the music and text beyond the limits of good taste. Moreover, I think his is a thrilling and utterly gripping account of this masterly lieder cycle. Yes, one notices he can be very dramatic and may seem to exaggerate emotions a bit. But he makes his treatment of the music work - and work with memorable impact. By the way, any performance of this cycle involves a second party of course, in this case, composer and pianist Thomas Adès, about whom I’ll mention more later on.

Bostridge goes up against the notion that the better performances of this cycle are those by baritones, like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Hermann Prey, Matthias Goerne, Gerald Finley and others. But then that’s a matter of taste, and personally I thought the 2014 performance on Sony by Jonas Kaufmann, with Helmut Deutsch, was very compelling. True, Kaufmann is a heldentenor with a voice that tilts toward baritone at times, but that doesn’t exclude him. Indeed, and Bostridge himself, who has a brighter but creamy and very pleasing tenor tone, can also go into the lower ranges, sometimes markedly so, as in Gefror’ne Tränen (No. 3, beginning at :59 with Ei Tränen, meine Tränen) and in Die Krähe (No. 15, at 2:16, Krähe, laß mich...).

Before going into greater detail on the performance, let me just say that in this cycle Schubert sets twenty-four songs by Wilhelm Müller about a young man rejected in love who roams about a winter landscape, depressed and dazed. Each poem brims with plentiful symbols and deep meaning and Schubert ingeniously marries the words to music of great profundity. In every single one of these songs Bostridge misses nothing, singing with a dedicated awareness of what each is about, probing for meaning and substance, often bringing the music to life in a new way or enlivening passages that may sound relatively pedestrian in other performances. Adès, for his part, plays with a similar sensitivity, his dynamics and phrasing in general in the cycle well judged, partnering Bostridge with much the same dramatic approach.

In the first song, Gute Nacht, you notice right off how Bostridge’s dynamics are subtly chosen and applied, his sense for drama very sensitive to the emotional flow of the music and text, and how his diction is very clear here and throughout. Adès plays with the appropriate somberness and an emphatic manner, his accenting and dynamics quite effective in conveying a feeling of sadness and emerging desperation. In Erstarrung (No.4) the sense of desperation is passionately expressed, a breathless, anxious manner pervading the music both from Bostridge and Adès. In the ensuing Der Lindenbaum, probably the most popular song in the cycle, Bostridge aptly conveys a consoling, even hopeful manner to accompany the melancholy feeling, but there is also an uneasy restlessness, especially in the anxious running notes played by Adès.

In Auf dem Flusse (No.7) I found Adès’ accompaniment very subtle, giving the music a strong sense of irony with its jabbing, bouncy manner. Bostridge is very convincing here as well, expressing conflicted emotions that grow toward painful outbursts, as the piano moves coldly, inexorably onward. The ensuing Rückblick exhibits the growing sense of desperation once more, and Irrlicht follows with a haunting yet desolate darkness, both lieder performed by the two artists with utter sensitivity to the music and text.

Hope and a measure of brightness come in Frühlingstraum (No.11), and Bostridge and Adès allow sunlight in, but effectively point up the anxiety and frustration that mix in, and by song’s end the lingering mood becomes one of sadness, appropriately so. Einsamkeit (No.12) is somber and sad, then turns stormy, the pair delivering a very effective take on this dark song. Ditto for The Post, as it brims with cheer and brightness, the rejected lover desperately hoping for a letter from his erstwhile girlfriend. The ensuing Die Krähe builds subtly toward a powerful forte at 2:29 that is both resplendently sung and earth-shakingly dramatic. You might want to cringe at the feeling of horror it summons. In all the remaining songs in the cycle Bostridge and Adès exhibit the same sense of devotion to detail and nuance, concluding the cycle in fine style: Das Wirtshaus (No.21) and Der Leiermann (No.24) are particularly outstanding, the former for its effectively shaped deliberate pacing and eerily somber character, and the latter for its haunting, puzzling manner, which I think leaves the meaning behind this closing song a mystery for us to interpret.

Recorded live in the Wigmore Hall in London, this performance is afforded very detailed and well balanced sound from the Pentatone engineering team, with virtually no audience background noise. As for the competition, I had earlier mentioned Fischer-Dieskau, but he has so many versions, several fine ones with Gerald Moore, that it becomes difficult to choose a favorite. That’s an embarrassment of riches of course, but then many listeners will find his sound reproduction variable and not at the standards of today’s best recordings. As suggested above, I also found the Jonas Kaufmann account on Sony quite excellent—actually, it’s an indispensable version. That said, if I have to select a favorite recording, I believe I would choose the Bostridge and Adès. Maybe tomorrow or the next day I’ll waiver a bit, but I won’t change my mind on one thing: this new performance by them must be called an essential acquisition for those Schubert and lieder mavens who regard this cycle as one of the greatest ever.

Robert Cummings

Previous review: John Quinn

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