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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Winterreise, D 911 (1827)
Thomas Oliemans (baritone)
Paolo Giacometti (piano)
rec. 2018, Stadsgehoorzaal Leiden, The Netherlands
Sung texts with English translations enclosed

Coincidentally I heard the last three songs from Winterreise on the radio less than a week ago, and when the broadcast was over it turned out that it was this recording. I was deeply moved by Die Nebensonnen and Der Leiermann and was very much looking forward to playing the whole cycle. I knew Oliemans well from previous releases. He first made his mark with a recital juxtaposing melodies by Fauré and Poulenc and has later been one of several singers in Malcolm Martineau’s cycles of melodies by those two composers. But ten years ago he also recorded Schubert’s Schwanengesang in a version that stood out from the majority of recordings. There he had, between the seven Rellstad songs and the six Heine songs, inserted four late settings of poems by Seidl, and together they formed a very attractive cycle. There is no need of course to amend Winterreise, which is a self-contained work in every respect. Obviously he recorded it also at about the time of the Schwanengesang, but that recording never came my way. Here though the now mature singer has turned to this Everest of song cycles, and he only confirms that he is one of the great interpreters of art songs.

He begins Gute Nacht – which due to the rather stiff accompaniment can be quite four-square, but Paolo Giacometti’s sensitive playing emphatically avoids any such problems – softly, lyrically and beautifully and with his usual nuanced phrasing and no unduly over-accentuation of keywords, and one believes this will be a well-behaved and unobtrusive reading of the cycle. But that impression is only deceptive. In Wetterfahne he is still rather soft but we notice some nervousness and restrained energy and the last lines are strong and defiant. Gefrorne Tränen is inward but one detects an uproarious mind, while Erstarrung is nervously anxious and the piano storms compassionately.

Der Lindenbaum is the lovely German folksong, sung mildly and softly. It changes character in the middle, but Oliemans avoids the big gestures. “Die kalten Winde” are not too chilly, and the last stanza is again mild and contemplative. In Wasserflut the unknown wanderer thinks of the tears that have fallen from his eyes into the snow. And when the snow melts the water will join the brook which flows through the town and so the tears will reach his sweetheart – but of course they will be heavily diluted, which the poet didn’t bother about! When we reach Frühlingstraum the feelings are divided. The idyllic opening contrasts heavily with the cocks’ crowing and the ravens’ cawing from the roof, and panic is imminent in the third stanza, when he sees the leaves painted on the window panes. Einsamkeit, which ends the first half of the cycle, in the olden days often became the final song at recitals, since the darkness that permeates the following twelve was too tough to stomach for the listeners. Here it is sung with touching beauty.

The jolly opening of Der Post is quickly changed to bitterness: the post brings no letter for you! Oliemans depicts this masterly and the rest of the cycle, leading inexorably to the end of ends is darker and darker – but immensely touching. The five last songs, always the apex of the cycle, bring tears to the eyes through the involvement of the singing and the sensitively applied nuances, from whispered pianissimos where one can suspect a tear in the eye, to powerful outbreaks of fear, fury or defiance. The intensity is tangible but he never oversteps the limits for good taste and always cares for tonal beauty: a kind of Mozartean credo that forbids him to let the music injure the ear, however terrible the situation. Der Wegweiser: “I must travel a road, from which no man has ever returned”. Das Wirtshaus, which opens solemnly, almost like walking into a cathedral, but it is only a churchyard, and the wanderer asks himself: “Are all the rooms in this house taken …?” In Mut he makes the last effort to see some light but the only light that remains is one of the three Nebensonnen he once saw. “Now the two best have set. If only the third would follow, I should feel happier in the dark”. Then remains the terminal point, Der Leiermann: “Strange old man, shall I go with you? Will you turn your hurdy-gurdy to my songs?”

Many great singers have tackled Winterreise, many of them successfully. I would even say that none of the readings I have heard – on records or in the recital room – have been bad. But some have touched me more than others. And when I return to the recordings I have cherished, I sometimes feel less touched by some that I remembered as superb, whilst others that I had regarded as also-rans suddenly open up and reveal depths previously unknown. Gerhard Hüsch, Hans Hotter, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Olof Bär, Matthias Goerne and John Elwes are established names, depending on mood, but I have some thirty-five others that are fully worthy. Tomas Oliemans is very close to the top of that list. A very touching, very involved reading with a warm heart.

Göran Forsling

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