Fremd bin ich eingezogen
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

Winterreise - An intercultural interpretation by Maximilian Guth
Asambura Ensemble
rec. 7-9 August 2019, Marienkirche Minden, Germany
DECURIO 004 [77:29]

Masterpieces can bear much intervention, their aesthetic integrity remaining aloof from creative reinventions and rearrangements. Schubert’s Winterreise has inspired innumerable such creative mediations – theatrical, kinaesthetic, cinematic, musical. In March 1996, tenor Martyn Hill and pianist Andrew Ball performed the song-cycle within an installation conceived by Christian Boltanski and directed by Hans Peter Cloos at the Opéra Comique in Paris. Artist Mariele Neudecker, working with baritone Andrew Foster-Williams and pianist Christopher Gould in 2003, used Schubert’s songs as the basis for a compilation of 24 short films – each of which existed as both a live performance and gallery version – using locations along the 60th parallel north. In the same year, choreographer Trisha Brown populated Schubert’s cycle through a ballet in which baritone Simon Keenlyside both sang and danced. David Alden directed Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake in a video of Winterreise in 2001; fifteen years later, Bostridge collaborated with Nesta Jones in The Dark Mirror, a video interpretation of Hans Zender’s ‘Schubert’s Winterreise’, itself a creative engagement with the song-cycle. In 2017, I attended a performance at Wigmore Hall of Winterreise: A Parallel Journey: Schubert’s song-cycle as presented by bass Matthew Rose and pianist Gary Matthewman ‘accompanied’ by flowing video projections by artist Victoria Crowe.

This preamble is by way of an introduction to Fremd bin ich eingezogen, an inter-cultural reinterpretation of Winterreise by Maximilian Guth and the Asambura Ensemble, which embeds Persian poetry (by Saadi, Rahi Moayyeri and Mehdi Akhavan-Sales) within Schubert’s score and Wilhelm Müller’s poems, juxtaposing and fusing German Romanticism and non-European culture in order to revisit from fresh perspectives the common Romantic trope of the wandering outcast.

When, in 1859, Schubert’s former pupil and friend Moritz von Schwind painted ‘Abschied im Morgengrauen’ (Farewell at Dawn), he reminisced a moment from his own past – his departure from Vienna in 1828, in despair at his lack of artistic success in his home town and his troubled relationships with members of Schubert’s circle. In a lyrical image, the central figure looks back somewhat wistfully but, clutching a staff and with a knapsack on his back, leans determinedly forward, breaking away decisively. “Fremd bin ich eingezogen,/ Fremd zieh ich wieder aus”: I came a stranger, I depart a stranger … The familiar steady tread, or trudge, of the piano left-hand of Winterreise’s opening song – which we seem to join in medias res as the wanderer creeps away from the household into an icy, black landscape – begins a journey into the cold, alienating unknown, a journey with is both outer and inner. The wanderer is not a stranger on foreign soil but an alien in his own land; more than this, he is estranged from his own ‘self’.

The multi-national Asambura Ensemble, whose name (an anagram of the Usambara mountains) stands for looking beyond the limits of one’s own horizon, interpret the opening line of Müller’s ‘Gute Nacht’ somewhat differently. Their wanderer is a stranger who seeks a place of belonging, a ‘soul-spirit’. He is an alien in a foreign land, but his journey is fuelled not by existential despair but by a sense of hope. Thus, the Asambura Ensemble have sought to develop ‘new perspectives’ claiming that ‘in view of the homelessness of so many refugees, this newly interpreted song cycle is highly up to date.’ Engaging with Winterreise in a time ‘of war, unrest and flight in the Middle East’, confirms that a desire for home and belonging is common to all cultures: ‘This is how the listener is called to solidarity with people who are on their personal winter journey, looking for a sky of the same color [sic]’. And, so, in Fremd bin ich eingezogen they strive for a universality of feeling which ‘opens up the possibility of overcoming isolation, to find a new connectedness that is comforting and makes the sense of being a stranger bearable’.

To achieve this ‘universality’ they bring together familiar and unfamiliar sound-worlds: the voice-piano duo of the German lied, the instrumental dialogues of western chamber music, the evocative blend of Near Eastern colours, timbres, textures: the glides and strokes of the santoor, the taut delicacy of the oud, the ringing bass tones and slaps of the djembe, the jingles of the riq by turns explosive and tender. Embraced within the dark, mellow and sonorous embrace of the marimba, these contrasting musical worlds fuse. Moreover, just as Schubert’s piano seems to both represent the outer world through which the wanderer travels – rustling branches, a raging stream, barking dogs and rattling chains – and to embody the psychological terrain through which he struggles, so here the urgent strings, sighing clarinets and throbbing drums evoke external and inner landscapes, merging with the two singers’ voices to convey displacement, loneliness and longing – elements common to all human cultures.

Similarly, German and Persian texts inter-weave: Schubert’s songs are sung by Yannick Spanier, whose strong, warm bass is complemented by the lament-infused lyrics sung in the traditional Persian style by Mehdi Saei. I’m not sure whether it is the juxtaposition or the amalgamation, of sound and/or word, which is most powerful; whatever, the effect is both unsettling and hypnotising. Instrumental preludes strand the listener in dislocating musical landscapes, adrift and alienated. Slowly, in fragments and snatches at first, Schubertian gestures accrue, take on recognisable shapes, and the rhythmic dynamic builds, carrying the journeyman onwards. Discomforted as I was initially by the denial of my anticipation and expectation, I found myself gradually drawn into a world which is neither eastern nor western, but something which is indeed both ‘rich and strange’, and revelatory.

We do not hear all of Schubert’s twenty-four songs (though some appear as brief fragments, embedded in unfamiliar places); nor are they presented ‘in sequence’. And, Fremd bin ich eingezogen does not commence with that familiar piano tread which starts the wanderer’s journey. Instead, the first song begins with the eerie circling of crows (from Schubert’s ‘Die Krähe’), those verminous figures of ill-omen, of alienation. From the dissonant vibrations and lyrical fragments emerge the voice of Saei, and Rahi Moayyeri’s song of pain and regret – flung in Petrarchian fashion, at a cruel mistress.

There is a dry drum pulse, then the first hint of Schubert’s song – a Romantic heightening from the strings, alongside a resounding pedal; is this a weary tread, or a drum-beat of war? Schubert’s melody unfolds in fragments: sometimes we hear a monodic line, sometimes harmony and instrumental counterpoint enrich. There are percussive interjections; a voice floats by, a spectral presence. Schubert’s melody, and its harmonisation, seems to carry the wanderer forward, in contrast to the static fragmentations, colours and sounds which hover, directionless, in a wilderness. Indeed, when Spanier commences ‘Gute Nacht’ in earnest, there is a strange shift, a rush, overly urgent after the lethargy and stasis. His voice is strong, confident, purposeful: where is the vulnerability? Is his song self-deluding?

My questions did not cease throughout the sequence, some numbers vocal, some instrumental. Some of Schubert’s songs are presented in a more ‘conventional’, recognisable format, but the listener is never permitted a comfortable viewpoint. ‘Wetterfahne’ is taut and tense, blown through with blasts of frenzy, outer and inner; the breathy flute, tremolo strings and the piano’s off-beat spread chords become percussive stabs and starts – violent and frightening, occasionally knocking the voice off-kilter. The opening phrase of ‘Wasserflut’ is reinterpreted through eastern filters, and there seems to be a dystopian weight which is alleviated only by sudden rushes of warmth.

Some numbers shocked me, left me lost. The rumbling patter, scratchy double-stops and dominant low bass of ‘Erstarrung’ evolved into a 3+3+2 rhythmic whirl, the infectious melody punctuated by high gestures. This was a spontaneous riff in which the clarinet takes on a vocal role but sounds playful rather than tortured. Perhaps there is obsessiveness and urgency, but where is the ‘numbness’ of Schubert’s song? There is improvisatory growth rather than loss; fecund percussive reflections that are compelling in their own right, but feel a long way from Schubert’s quasi-hysteria. Here there is release, not repression.

Similarly, the staccato alienation of Schubert’s ‘Auf dem Flusse’ is replaced by a rich instrumental sound-scape: tremolos, pedals, noises and rustles. The tempo is slow, the line elongated: quite lyrical, the latter sinks low. Schubert conjures an icy chill: the water is frozen, as is the wanderer’s mind. The piano’s left and right hands are adrift of each other. Here, there is a tumult of sound, overwhelming rather than disjointed.

The dramatic forte/piano juxtapositions of Schubert’s ‘Ruckblick’ are brutalised; the major key interlude thus seems more dreamlike and unreachable. In ‘Rast’, the oud and bass clarinet present an evocative texture against which the more conventional vocal line must struggle; there is a sense of exhaustion, but also of a somnambulistic movement forward. The final two lines, quiet then explosive, present a striking dramatic contrast which remains unresolved, the song dangling on the fifth degree.

No translation is given for the Persian song, ‘Shod Kazan’, but one doesn’t have to listen hard to sense the pain and pathos. ‘Fruhlingstraum’ seems, at first, more conventional: either a rude interruption or a gentle cleansing, however the listener responds. But, strangeness follows: violence, dream, nightmare – Spanier’s tender head voice in the third stanza offers illusory consolations, in some ways more disturbing than the preceding violent awakening.

‘Einsamkeit’ replaces Müller with Saadi: ‘To grieve the current days or to grieve the separation from my love’. String quartet textures feel oddly displaced, transplanted. An infectious dance rhythm infuses with the migrated music creating vibrant colours. This was originally Schubert’s ‘final’ song, in his first setting of just twelve of Müller’s poems, but with the following, slow, ‘Der greise Kopf’ there is little sense of ‘restarting’ on the journey, such as Schubert’s ‘Die Post’ offers. Instead, there is just darkness: with the line “Wie weit noch bis zur Bahre!” (The grave – will it come never?) we seem to be deluged by echoes from the deep – rumbles, blackness. After the sparse unison of voice and oud, eerie hums and booms subsume the traveller.

And, then, the crows: we are back where we started, the circling cry is coloured with whistles and shudders, the voice bravely forthright, even four-square. But, there is mensural disruption in ‘Letzte Hoffnung’, the fast piano staccato running of the tracks, though finding a safe haven at the close in head-voice tenderness that surges then retreats. The pace is unstoppable now: we segue into the twilight zone of the Interlude, and then on again into ‘Wegweiser’: and, again, Schubert’s gestures emerge from the textural and motivic mists, gradually taking form, protean, elusive: string textures and conventional harmonic progressions deceive the ear with a sense of forward movement, only to be disillusioned with the heaviness of percussive scrapes and thumps.

A hint of ‘Die Nebensonnen’ – for me, the transfiguring moment of Schubert’s cycle – heralds the entrance of the hurdy-gurdy man. Of course: the ‘wunderliches Tier’ (strange creature) of ‘Die Krähe’ is the same beast or being as the ‘wunderlicher Alter (strange old man) of ‘Der Leiermann’. The final song is equal in length to the first, but the hurdy-gurdy man’s song is not heard for some time. Instead, pedal points, fluctuations and oscillations submerge the listener in eastern colours, and when the song does emerge it is fuses with Persian fragments. The German lied feels blanched, the Persian text ghostlike.

This is, the Asambura Ensemble explain, the longed-for and anticipated, ‘encounter’; a ‘hopeful dialogue’ ensues ‘where there was only loneliness before’. I’m not so sure. ‘Gute Nacht’ begins again, subsuming the percussive echoes of ‘Der Leiermann’. But, we end with the crows – a dissonant droning, an existential lament.

Perhaps I bring too much of my own experience of Schubert’s song-cycle to Fremd bin ich eingezogen? Certainly, I have been made to re-listen and to re-think. Perhaps I do too much of the latter? But, Maximilian Guth and the Asambura Ensemble initiate dialogues that it is fruitless to resist and impossible not to pursue. I’m not sure about the ‘social relevance’ that they profess to embody. But, this reimagined winter journey certainly has the power to speak to individuals, and potentially to join and to bind them.

Claire Seymour
Fremd bin ich eingezogen [11:38]
Wetterfahne [1:54]
Wasserflut [1:29]
Erstarrung [6:54]
Auf dem Flusse [5:12]
Rückblick [2:36]
Rast [3:44]
Shod Kazan – Herbst ist gekommen [4:41]
Frühlingstraum [4:25]
Einsamkeit [5:02]
Der Greise Kopf [3:25]
Krähe [2:22]
Letzte Hoffnung [1:57]
Interlude [1:36]
Wegweiser [8:52]
Leiermann [11:42]

Yannick Spanier (German vocals); Mehdi Saei (Persian vocals); Cornelius Rauch and Josefa Schmidt (piano); Robin-Lynn Hirzel (violin); Florian Giering (viola); Barbara Hartrumpf (cello); Lluis Böhme (double bass); Jule Hillman (flute/alto flute); Anne Bischof (bass flute); Justus Czaske (clarinet); Maximilian Guth (bass clarinet), Daniel Seminara (guitar); Ehsan Ebrahimi (santoor); Alaaddin Zaitouna and Ammar Zein (oud); Parisa Safikhani (tar); Tilman Muth (marimba); George Benhöfer (djembe); Abdulrahim Aljouja (riq); Johannes Ludwig (dumbak/percussion)