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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Winterreise, Op 89, D911 (1827)
Ian Bostridge (tenor)
Thomas Adès (piano)
rec. live September 2018, Wigmore Hall, London
German texts & English translations included
PENTATONE PTC5186764 [72:26]

Ian Bostridge is one of the most thoughtful of Lieder interpreters and he has a particular fascination for Winterreise. Not only has he recorded it more than once but he has also published, in 2015, a substantial book – the paperback version runs to 490 pages - about Schubert’s great cycle in which he discusses and analyses each of the twenty-four songs in detail. The title of the book is Schubert’s Winter Journey but I think the subtitle is revealing: Anatomy of an obsession. He first sang the cycle – a private performance to friends - in 1985, so by the time he came to give the Wigmore Hall performance preserved on this disc he’d been performing and living with the cycle for some 33 years. As with any serious artist, Bostridge has clearly evolved and refined his interpretation over time and in this connection it has been instructive to compare and contrast this 2018 live recording with the one which he made under studio conditions for EMI in 2004 when his pianist was Leif Ove Andsnes (review).

The present recording was made live at London’s Wigmore Hall and it must stem from the recital on 17 September 2018 that was attended by my Seen and Heard colleague, Chris Sallon (review). If I had to select one word to describe Bostridge’s new reading of Winterreise, it would be ‘interventionist’. He’s consistently probing the text, colouring it and bringing out the meaning. He does that, too, in his 2004 recording but not to the same extent, I feel. Maybe the expressive step up between the two versions is the result of his further study of the songs in the intervening years. Alternatively, Bostridge may have been spontaneously inspired by the presence of an audience at the Wigmore Hall. Probably the truth lies somewhere between. I referred to an interpretative “step up” between the two versions but not everyone will see it that way. I can envisage that some listeners will find the more recent performance a shade over-interpreted at times. Whilst by no means shorn of interpretative curiosity, the 2004 recording strikes me as a bit more relaxed and flowing. It’s worth pointing out also that Bostridge and Adès are more expansive in their treatment of several songs as compared to Bostridge and Andsnes. As a result, the 2004 version plays for some three minutes less, coming in at a total timing of 69:29.

The interpretative difference between the two recordings is in evidence immediately. Bostridge does more with the words in ‘Gute Nacht’ than was the case in 2004. In the final stanza of Müller’s poem, he really invests Schubert’s music with sorrowful expression. The physical (external) and emotional (internal) turbulence of ‘Die Wetterfahne’ is vividly brought out and in his account of ‘Erstarrung’ Bostridge’s characterisation is wracked with anguish.

In ‘Der Lindenbaum’ it seems to me that Bostridge digs more deeply into Müller’s text than he did in 2004, especially the fifth stanza (‘Die kalten Winde bliesen’). Here, I noticed that the 2004 performance is more urgently paced but in 2018 Bostridge and Adès don’t rely on a quick tempo for urgency; that quality is derived from the way the music is articulated. In ‘Wasserflut’ Bostridge makes the rising phrases to the top notes sound pregnant with feeling. A few doubts creep in, though, during ‘Auf dem Flusse’ where Bostridge deploys an almost operatic range of dynamic contrasts. Does this lead to over-interpretation of the song? Perhaps.

‘Irrlicht’ benefits from a strong narrative thread. Bostridge and Adès are very imaginative in their use of tempo modifications for dramatic effect. That said, the 2004 performance is no less imaginative and it seemed to me that in that earlier account, made under studio conditions, Bostridge hit the bottom B naturals, which occur several times, more fully and securely than he managed in 2018. ‘Einsamkeit’ is made very dramatic, especially in the last stanza (‘Ach, daß die Luft so ruhig!’) Again, some listeners may feel this is a bit overdone.

‘Die Krähe’ has the tempo marking Etwas langsam (somewhat slowly); I think the speed adopted here is too slow. To be sure, Bostridge conveys the sinister nature of the crow as the traveller perceives it, but I think he risks overplaying his hand – the last two lines are almost wrung from him. By contrast, in 2004 the song is taken at a somewhat swifter pace – a speed which is similar to what I’ve heard from many other singers – and the performance has a lighter touch, albeit the listener experience is still intense. I feel that the 2004 approach is preferable. ‘Im Dorfe’ is also taken more slowly than in 2004 and one has the sense that every word is being mined for meaning. You might regard the approach as overstated but I must admit I found the performance fascinating. ‘Der Wegweiser’ is another song which is taken a bit more slowly than in 2004. The EMI version has a more natural Schubertian flow, I think. Bostridge is a supremely thoughtful interpreter but I did begin to wonder if his treatment of this and a few other songs was not a bit anachronistic, with Schubert’s music being viewed from a later Romantic perspective.

It cannot be denied though that Bostridge is a penetrating Schubert interpreter and ‘Das Wirtshaus’ offers a fine example of his skill and perception. He and Adès generate great tension and I found the performance really compelling. ‘Der Leiermann’ is a musical case of multum in parvo. The music is exceptionally spare: in essence the singer has two-bar fragments of music, followed by two-bar responses from the pianist, and everything is underpinned by the piano’s drone. Yet from these simple means Schubert constructs a daring, otherworldly song. Bostridge and Adès perform it superbly, really drawing the listener in.

There’s much to ponder and admire in this performance of Winterreise, and that’s as it should be. There may be some aspects of this reading that cause my eyebrows to rise slightly, especially in comparison with the 2004 recording, but everything about this performance bespeaks probing intelligence on the part of the performers. It’s an even more intense listening experience than the earlier version. I don’t believe that the earlier recording is superseded but it’s stimulating and valuable to have Bostridge’s further thoughts on a work which is close to his heart. His partnership with Thomas Adès is evidently a fruitful one; Adès plays marvellously

It’s appropriate to say a word about the presentation of this release. The recorded sound is excellent, presenting the performers clearly and in good balance with each other. I could detect no audience noise whatsoever. The booklet essay is by Ian Bostridge. It’s a reprint of an article he wrote for The Guardian newspaper in January 2015. Much of the focus is on ‘Der Leiermann’ and anyone reading the essay can’t fail to respect the evident scholarship and considered thought that lies behind this singer’s approach to the cycle. Pentatone have set the article and the texts and translations in a very clear, readable font which makes a pleasant change from the miniscule fonts inflicted on us by too many record companies. I can’t say I care for the booklet photos of the artists, which are slightly reminiscent of the style of the painter Francis Bacon.

This is to be the first of a trio of releases for Pentatone by Ian Bostridge. Die schöne Müllerin and Schwanengesang are to follow in due course. Many singers use the same pianist for recitals and recordings but Bostridge seems to prefer the stimulus of working with a variety of artists. Consequently, as with his earlier EMI recordings of these three great sets of songs, he will be partnered by three different pianists. I await the future releases with great interest.

John Quinn

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