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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Winterreise, D 911 (1827)
Transcription for baritone and string quartet by Gilone Gaubert
Alain Buet (baritone)
Quatuor les heures du jour
rec. 2018, Salle Gazier, Abbaye of Port Royal des Champs, France
MUSO MU-035 [73:47]

I have had a couple of unusual Winterreise recordings for review lately, one for trombone and piano, one for string quartet – both interesting and perspective building insofar as they focused on the music and disregarded the poems. On the present issue the texts are again in focus but the accompaniments are transcribed for string quartet. This has happened before. Three years ago Danish bass-baritone Johan Reuter issued a disc that I picked as one of my Recordings of the Year (review). The difference between that recording and the present one is that here the quartet play on period instruments, producing a sound that Schubert in all likelihood would have recognised as authentic. In both cases the strings add a stronger sense of legato than the piano, and the period strings give a certain edge than the smoother modern strings do. As on Reuter’s disc the possibilities to colour the music is well catered for – the pizzicato accompaniment for Gefror’ne Tränen is a perfect illustration of the frozen tears. Likewise the dark strings in Der greise Kopf create a more ominous atmosphere than the piano can do. Generally the accompaniments are docile and not in the least gimmicky. I’m sure Schubert would have liked them. Both singers have chosen similar tempos. In most cases they differ just a few seconds, Reuter marginally slower, but a difference of little more than two minutes for so long a work very clearly points to similar attitudes.

When it comes to the actual readings they differ a lot, however. Reuter is a dramatic singer with heavy Wagnerian roles like Holländer and Wotan in his repertoire. In that respect he reminds me of Hans Hotter, who had a similar repertoire but still was able to scale down his magnificent voice to chamber dimensions without losing in intensity. Particularly his DG recording from 1942, when he was in his early thirties, is a prime example of his lyrical singing combined with superb enunciation. And Reuter follows in his footsteps with wonderfully nuanced singing. Alain Buet, who has appeared as Pizarro in Fidelio, has a much more operatic approach with full-throated singing in the opening Gute Nacht and elsewhere as well. But, like Reuter, he has a rich supply of soft nuances and he sings a very restrained and beautiful Lindenbaum with excellent legato. Auf dem Flusse is another deeply felt reading with the last stanza full of pain. He makes the most of the intense drama in Rückblick and delivers a powerful Rast. His Frühlingstraum is light and airy and he actually reminds me of Hotter there.

In the second half of the cycle, from Die Post – with a heart-rending last stanza – and onwards, he is superb throughout. It seems that he embraces every feeling, every nuance in every song in his own individual way. When he reaches Das Wirtshaus his wandering is more strenuous than ever and his identification with the death he discerns in the two great final songs, Die Nebensonnen and Der Leiermann, is total. In the latter the hurdy-gurdy is realistically represented by the string quartet.

Time and again I have found that readings of Winterreise can differ a lot and still be equally valuable. There is no such thing as a definitive reading. Of course this – and Johan Reuter’s – version can never be regarded as authoritative readings, just as versions in other languages than German also are unauthentic, but when they are as good as these two they are valuable alternatives and offer stimulating listening. I do urge readers to sample both Johan Reuter and Alain Buet, and my guess is that several will be enticed to acquire one or both.

Göran Forsling