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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Winterreise (1827)
Benjamin Hewat-Craw (baritone)
Yuhao Guo (piano)
rec. 9-11 March 2020, DA, Kunsthaus Kloster Gravenhorst, Hörstel, Germany
ARS PRODUKTION ARS38573 [71:26]

“Come to Schrober’s today and I will play you a cycle of terrifying songs,” said Franz Schubert to one of those who was the first to hear the composer’s song cycle on 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller (1794-1827). That cycle, Winterreise (Winter Journey), was completed just a year before the composer’s death, when he knew he did not have long to live. Indeed, correcting the proofs was the last work Schubert did in life. Like Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, it is one of the saddest works ever written; any moment of happiness is soon revealed to be only a dream and the narrator wishes only that there were room in the cemetery for him.

The cycle tells the story of the narrator’s rejection by his love, and his consequent wandering aimlessly through a bleak winter countryside for two days, fantasizing and dreaming as his depression mounts. It’s a powerful work, and a most audacious piece to use as one’s debut album. UK baritone Benjamin Hewat-Craw and accompanist Yuhao Guo are undeterred and forge ahead here anyway, with a few serious successes. While the piece is written for tenor, it has been adapted for nearly all vocal ranges, and I find the baritone range with its gravity to be well-suited to it.

Unfortunately, Hewat-Craw takes a fairly detached approach throughout most of the piece. The subject matter to my mind really insists upon a more despondent if not emotional approach. Certainly there’s very little here that fits Schubert’s description of “terrifying.” But if you’re looking for a Winterreise full of quiet despair as opposed to the usual histrionics, this rendition may prove satisfying. Hewat-Craw’s German diction seems quite good, with each word coming across quite clearly.

The bookends of the first song, Gute Nacht  (Good Night), and the last song, Der Leierman (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man), are highlights of the set. The closing piece in particular is profoundly moving, and I’d consider it among the very best versions I’ve heard. If only Hewat-Craw had put this much heart into the other segments, which often come across as perfunctory. But it certainly serves as a fittingly heart-breaking climax to the disc.

Hewat-Craw is helped significantly by his pianist; Yuhao Guo does a fine job of conveying the urgency and emotion that’s often lacking in the vocals. See, for instance, the drama he injects into Erstarrung (Frozen). It’s not a good thing to be overshadowed by your accompanist, especially in a piece that calls for drama and variation in order to keep it from being a morass of bland self-pity. The pianist meticulously observes Schubert’s precise articulations, moreso than most. The one spot where he diverges from the score is in the last song, where he continues to play an acciaccatura (grace note) in the bass after the first two measures, which are the only places where Schubert actually indicates it. I’m willing to tolerate this move, since it does produce a good effect, but it’s nevertheless surprising to hear after the quite careful precision with the score that has preceded it.

Winterreise is a most challenging piece, and it has naturally drawn some of the greatest voices of all time to it. Hewat-Craw makes a good effort, but really can’t compare to the darkly ominous alto of Christa Ludwig or the depths of misery conveyed by Hans Hotter in his various recordings of the cycle. This would make a good substitute for those who find Jonas Kaufmann’s rendition to be too heart-on-sleeve. Hewat-Craw can’t measure up to the masterful phrasing of tenor Peter Schreier, or the quite wonderful English version by Roderick Williams, another baritone. This shouldn’t be anyone’s first Winterreise, but those who collect multiple recordings of the piece may be interested in Hewat-Craw’s more measured approach.

The recording quality is excellent. There does not seem to be any dynamic compression, and the vocals come across with good immediacy. There’s no question from the sound that the piano is a Steinway. The recorded audio of the present disc is much better than the echo-filled set by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau accompanied by Murray Perahia, which is unlistenable by comparison.

Mark S. Zimmer



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