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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Winterreise, D911 (1827)
Texts by Wilhelm Müller (1794-1827)
Joyce DiDonato (mezzo-soprano)
Yannick Nézet-Séguin (piano)
rec. live, 15 December 2019, Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage, Carnegie Hall, New York City
Full sung texts with English translations.
ERATO 9029528414 [70:26]

Two eminent artists come together for the Schubert song cycle Winterreise (Winter Journey), a masterwork of the genre: Joyce DiDonato, the Kansas born mezzo-soprano, and French-Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the music director of the Metropolitan Opera.

Winterreise is a setting of twenty-four verses by Schubert’s close contemporary, the romantic poet Wilhelm Müller, texts of a folk-like starkness. The songs take the listener on a harrowing winter journey with a despairing protagonist (sometimes termed the youth or wanderer), whose love has been spurned by a girl he had hoped to marry. Written in chiefly minor keys, these settings portray a cold and desolate winter landscape. The suffering wanderer is in a state of turmoil that will surely end tragically. On her website, DiDonato describes the cycle as the ‘singular crowning achievement in song’.

Winterreise was composed for tenor. Its appropriateness for the female voice is still being questioned, a point worth mentioning since this recording has revived the issue of gender. Despite its tradition as a male-only preserve, it is heartening just how many women have performed or recorded the work, thus creating their own performing tradition. From the early 1900s to the early 1960s, over thirty sopranos, mezzo-sopranos and contraltos have sung Winterreise in recital. Recordings of individual songs or the whole cycle were made notably by Elisabeth Schumann, Kirsten Flagstad and Lotte Lehmann. Since then, more women have recorded the cycle, among them Brigitte Fassbaender, Christa Ludwig, Margaret Price and Nathalie Stutzmann; some did it more than once. In the last twenty years or so, no woman who sang Winterreise has recorded it. Probably the best known of those is Jessye Norman, who in 2001 performed a staged version of Winterreise designed by Robert Wilson. Over the years Winterreise has been performed in a range of adaptations, for example with a fortepiano of the period, guitar accompaniment, string quartet, klezmer band and jazz band. In 1995 film director Petr Weigl created a dramatization on DVD of Winterreise sung by Fassbaender dressed as a nun; she was accompanied by pianist Wolfram Rieger (who is not seen on the film).

I do not believe that Winterreise is a gender-specific song cycle even though the texts are clearly written from the male perspective. Personally, I find it a joy to hear a variety of voice types and their interpretative potential. My first ever recording of Winterreise (1988) is in fact sung by mezzo-soprano Brigitte Fassbaender, and it remains the one I reach for first.

DiDonato explains in the notes how – before agreeing to take on the song cycle at the behest of Nézet-Séguin – she gave thought to understanding Winterreise from the viewpoint of the girl. As a stimulus behind the anguished and wounded protagonist’s torment, surely the girl must know of his intention to retreat, to get away from the pain of her rejection? The girl ‘spoke of love’. Müller’s text provides no answers, so DiDonato needed to explore as empathetically as possible how the girl might view the situation had he sent her his diaries or journal. She ends her introductory note in the booklet emphatically with the words ‘this can also be her journey’.

DiDonato first sang Winterreise in 2018. Her approach is to follow an imagined scenario that places the spotlight on the girl’s feelings and emotions upon reading the protagonist’s diaries. At the actual Carnegie Hall recital of Winterreise, just before DiDonato and Nézet-Séguin began the cycle, the supertitle for the texts read ‘I received his journal in the post.’

There is satisfying emotion in the performance. The singer is clearly conscious of trying to make every note count. Her sincerity is beyond reproach, and I can sense a vulnerability to the girl’s character as the diaries take her through the man’s anger and shock towards a sense of hopelessness leading to possible mental decline, maybe even suicide. Undoubtedly DiDonato can make a beautiful, joyous sound – her Handel, Mozart, Rossini and Donizetti recordings bear testament – yet Winterreise gives emphasis on putting the heart through an emotional wringer. She is impressive in the affecting song Der Wegweiser (The signpost) that evokes our weary wonderer emotionally held captive on a winter journey from which he can never return. Praiseworthy too is her interpretation of Das Wirtshaus (The Inn) empathising with the wanderer who is now in the graveyard and near delirious with physical pain and mental exhaustion, believing he is being denied death to endure everlasting torment. DiDonato’s high notes are beautifully produced, for example in Das Wirtshaus (The Inn), a real highlight. The emotion she generates is so intense it borders on the unruly, as in Erstarrung (Numbness). In some of the songs the required range does not seem to correspond ideally to DiDonato’s tessitura, causing her some strain in the lower reaches. That comes at the expense of some colour and emotional expression, for example in Auf dem Flusse (On the river), Der greise Kopf (The hoary head) and Irrlicht (Will-o’-the-wisp).

Nézet-Séguin is celebrated as a conductor rather than a pianist, but he plays dependably and with assurance. Even so, he does not have such accomplishment as, say, Jörg Demus who partners with Fischer-Dieskau. In truth, Fassbaender (1988) and Fischer-Dieskau (1965) seem in a different league than many other recordings of Winterreise that I have heard.

The live recording in recital at Carnegie Hall has satisfactory sound quality. The singer could have been placed slightly more forward of the piano. Occasionally there is some stage and audience noise which did not distract me too much. More to my taste is the closer sound picture and clarity of the studio recordings by Fassbaender (1988) and Fischer-Dieskau (1965). Full sung German texts are placed alongside the English translations. DiDonato contributed an introductory note ‘I received his journal in the post…’, and there is an informative essay by Richard Stokes.

Brigitte Fassbaender’s acclaimed Winterreise cycle from 1988 with pianist Aribert Reimann was recorded for EMI at the Abbey Road studios, London (review). I distinctly recall the album being heavily promoted at the time of its release, and remains my prime recommendation of the cycle. With the advantage of her lower extension, the Berlin born mezzo-soprano penetrates deep to the core of the wanderer’s journey in an affecting interpretation of powerful emotional intensity. For any doubters, I believe Fassbaender makes a decidedly powerful case for a woman’s voice in Winterreise. As one might expect in her mother tongue, her enunciation is perfect, a vital quality for a substantial text that takes around seventy minutes to perform.

Baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was a mere twenty-two when he recorded his first Winterreise in 1948 with pianist Klaus Billing (for broadcast by Berlin radio). He would later record several more accounts both for radio and commercially. A firm first choice of many collectors, and the Fischer-Dieskau recording I enjoy the most, is his partnership with Jörg Demus recorded for Deutsche Grammophon in 1965 at Ufa Studio, Berlin. The Berlin-born baritone was then forty and in his prime, and his account has real gravitas. Fischer-Dieskau displays such rare artistry and impeccable diction that it is easy to understand the recording’s popularity. My CD of this 1965 recording is a remastered reissue on the yellow label’s The Originals series which has a welcome clarity of sound.

Very much to my taste is also the rather straightforward yet compelling 1982 account by another Berliner Siegfried Lorenz with pianist Norman Shetler recorded at Lukaskirche, Dresden for Eterna/Berlin Classics as part of an eight-CD set (review).

DiDonato and Nézet-Séguin perform Winterreise with real credit, but the choice of competing recordings in the catalogue is fierce, and the finest of those are exceptional.

Michael Cookson

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