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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Winterreise (Winter Journey) D.911
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Iain Burnside (piano)
rec. 15-17 July 2020, Potton Hall, Dunwich, UK
CHANDOS CHAN20163 [71:45]

Roderick Williams and Iain Burnside have already given us recent Chandos versions of Die schöne Müllerin and Schwanengesang (both much admired by John Quinn on this site) and now complete their survey of Schubert’s song cycles with this recording of Winterreise. In 2018 Williams released “Winter Journey” on the Signum label, a Winterreise sung in a recent English translation by Jeremy Sams. But Roderick Williams’s journey with these cycles is fairly recent for him, since he avoided them for twenty-five years he says. It all began in 2015 when he was invited to perform all three song cycles in a future season (2017-18) at the Wigmore Hall in London. Williams learned the music and texts, held study days, and gave numerous performances in a variety of venues. I heard the one of Schwanengesang he gave at the Globe’s indoor theatre, with connecting poetry readings by Jenny Agutter. This three-year experience is covered in his fascinating blog, full of insight into the process of preparing and performing these long, culturally central, works of music and poetry. Thus there are two journeys recorded here; that taken by the protagonist of Schubert’s cycle, and that taken by the singer, now in his fifties and with so much recital experience, yet here at the end of a novitiate. The former ends his journey in numb despair, the latter in a most successful graduation.

Williams eases his way into his journey, initially very slightly reluctant to join the pace of Burnside’s opening staccato quavers, as if dragging his feet in the snow. It’s a very subtle effect, and one of several such. In the famous switch to the major, both pianist and singer use a slight (unmarked) ritenuto, as well as the marked pp, to touching effect. In ‘Frozen Tears’ (the third song), the repeated Tränen (tears) that open the second verse are acted as much as sung, Williams approaching the pitch of the first syllable almost from below, in a suitably lachrymose manner. There is similar vocal acting in the fourteenth song (Der greise Kopf – The hoary head), but most of the cycle is sung and played straighter than that, letting good phrasing, right tempi, properly observed dynamics, vocal colour - and Müller’s words and Schubert’s music – make their effect. I suspect that in some future performances Williams will bring more of his stage experience to the projection of this troubled character. As a fine Billy Budd, he is no stranger to playing the bewildered victim of unjust treatment.

Part Two is launched by infectiously rhythmic playing from Burnside, as the postillion’s horn call announces Die Post (The post). It is a brief passage from the busy world, and though the post has no letter for our protagonist his heart still leaps at the sound, Williams finding various colours for the repetitions of Mein Herz (My Heart). In the downward psychological spiral of the final songs, the hymn-like Das Wirtshaus stands out. ‘The Inn’ of the title is in fact a graveyard – but an inn with no room yet for this traveller. There is a sublime moment when the singer sings Bin matt zum Niedersinken (‘I am weary to the point of collapse’). The word matt requires a leap into the passagio – Graham Johnson calls it “the most difficult note to sing in the cycle, particularly for baritones”. Roderick Williams not only sings it beautifully, but seemingly without strain, as a natural part of the legato line required by a slow tempo. But much of his singing is immaculate in this way. And the uplifting peroration for the piano is nobly achieved by Burnside, too. Perhaps the final two songs could yield more pain and pathos, but these muted accounts of the traveller’s mental anguish also have an understated power, suggesting a traveller who at the end of the cycle has little left to give to the business of living.

There is typically good Chandos sound and a helpful booklet with texts and translations. A fine Winterreise then, like so many in the catalogue. Roderick Williams wonders near the start of his blog whether he could possibly add anything to the many who preceded him on this Winter Journey. But for us Winterreise obsessives, a singer who is capable of singing this cycle well and does not attempt it, almost owes us an explanation! We can always find shelf room for another version, especially if it’s as considered, skilful, and ultimately moving as this one from Williams and Burnside.

Roy Westbrook

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