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With wisdom (or naivety), I openly declare that my benchmark for any new performance of Franz Schubert’s Winterreise is the incomparable German lyric baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s Deutsche Grammophon edition released in 1972; he was accompanied by Gerald Moore. Fischer-Dieskau made several recordings of this masterpiece, the first in 1955 and the last in 1990, but this one seems to me unbeatable. I remember sitting down with the vocal score and following the progress of this definitive example of a song cycle. It left a considerable impression on a young music lover.
There are currently some 138 recordings of Winterreise in the Arkiv catalogue alone. Some of these will be repackagings. Only Schubert’s devoted aficionados will have methodically compared these performances. I give my thoughts about this CD.
Schubert composed the song cycle during the spring of 1827. The final ten of twenty-four songs were completed during the autumn. The text was derived from the poetry of Wilhelm Müller (1794-1827). The background to this music would appear to be the composer’s consciousness that he was nearing the end of his life. Gone was the ‘rosy gleam’ from his earlier life and music. This had been replaced by a growing sense of despondency. He was in the ‘winter of his life’. In fact, Schubert was to die the following year. One of his final tasks was the revision of the publisher’s proof copies of Winterreise.
I was disappointed that the liner notes did not include even the briefest of overviews of the song cycle. I think that this would be helpful, even though the text is largely self-explanatory. The basic concept of Winterreise is lost love. The protagonist/singer, forsaken by his lover, sets off on a journey through a winter landscape. (“Winterreise” means simply “winter journey” or “winter travel”.)
One platitude that must never be suggested to the protagonist/singer is that ‘there are plenty of other fish in the sea’. He clearly relishes his romantic loss and pain. If anything, the only criticism that can be made of Winterreise is that the language is overblown: thoughts of madness and suicide may well be an exaggeration. Much of the work is sorrowful. The notable exception is the ever-popular fifth song, Der Lindenbaum, characterised by optimism. Here the poet sees some words he had carved on the tree to his beloved. Other lighter moments include the opening song, Gute Nacht; the poet recalls how his affair began in the spring but ended in winter (A May to September romance?) Another less melancholic song is Die Post; the singer hears the post-horn and fondly hopes (in vain) for a letter from his beloved.
Der Stürmische Morgen is a good example of the sometimes overbearing melodramatic nature of Winterreise. The traveller is overtaken by a storm that thunders across the morning sky: it is a symbol of his own despair. Der Leiermann (Hurdy Gurdy Man) concludes the entire cycle. It has been pointed out that this is the only human being that the traveller meets on his journey. Here a hint is given that it is just as well that that the poet/singer did not perish in the snowdrifts of winter. There is just the hint that he may well follow the organ grinder into the spring. Maybe there are other possibilities.
I noted that Danacord disappointingly did not include any discussion of this work in the liner notes. It is easy, in fact, to find information in books and on the Internet, but this is a complex work that needs some explanation and context-setting. The full text is given in German and in English. There are short biographies of the Danish tenor Mathias Hedegaard and the pianist Tove Lĝnskov.
This recording impressed me. The tenor has a wide-ranging voice which is sometimes more like a high baritone. He is brilliant at capturing the massive mood swings inherent in this song cycle. Despair is contrasted with hope, intimacy with mordant humour. It is a splendid song recital.
The totality of Winterreise is far greater than the winter ramblings of an impressionable youth. The work explores concepts of existence, metaphysics, politics and the basic human condition. With this greater project both performers have presented a masterclass.