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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Winterreise, Op 89, D 911 (1827-28)
Roderick Williams (baritone), Iain Burnside (piano)
rec. July 2020, Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, UK.
German texts and English translation included
CHANDOS CHAN20163 [71:45]

With this release Roderick Williams and Iain Burnside conclude their exploration of Schubert’s three great song collections. I greatly admired their accounts of Die Schöne Müllerin in 2018 (review) and Schwanengesang the following year (review), so this was a keenly anticipated disc as far as I was concerned.

In a note accompanying the recording of Schwanengesang Roderick Williams told us that he began to learn these three great sets of songs in late 2015 after receiving an invitation to perform all three at London’s Wigmore Hall in the 2017/18 season. Williams is so renowned as a recital artist that it came as a major surprise to me to read his admission that until that point he had, as he put it, “subtly avoided these pinnacles of the song repertoire”. I suppose that until then I’d lazily assumed that he must have had these songs in his repertoire. In the last few years I’ve attended performances that he’s given of Die Schöne Müllerin (review) and of Schwanengesang (review) but to date a live account of Winterreise has eluded me. One day, I hope. That said, I have heard him sing Schubert’s cycle: he recorded it in 2017 but on that occasion he sang it in English – as Winter Journey – using the new version by Jeremy Sams (review). I’ve deliberately not made any comparisons between that recording and this newcomer; indeed, I’ve also refrained from reading my review of Winter Journey. That’s because the two entities are very distinct; I recognise that there will be people who will be wary of an English version, though I have to say that I was very pleasantly surprised by how much I warmed to Sams’ version. However, I think it’s worth making one point. Mastering the songs of Winterreise in two different languages will be no easy task. In effect, taking into consideration Winter Journey, in three years from late 2015, Roderick Williams learned four major collections of songs by Schubert – 82 songs in all. That’s no mean achievement when one considers all the other commitments he will have undertaken in that time.

I don’t know when he and Iain Burnside first essayed Winterreise in public, but it seems to me that by the time they took their reading into the studio in July 2020, the songs were all thoroughly ‘embedded’. This is an interpretation by artists who have lived with the cycle as a musical partnership for some time. How else could they establish such a narrative thread through the twenty-four songs? Schubert and Wilhelm Müller weave a cumulative tragic narrative and it’s the cumulative aspect of this particular interpretation that made a strong impression on me. A narrative thread can be established in live performance but I suspect it’s much more difficult in a studio recording where it’s probably unlikely that the cycle will be recorded in a single take.

In ‘Gute Nacht’ we hear many of the attributes that will recur again and again throughout this performance. Williams’ singing is distinguished by an easy, seamless line and he enunciates the text very clearly and with great understanding. I noticed that a language coach, Gerhard Gall is credited in the booklet (he fulfilled the same function on the other two projects). One doesn’t always see a language coach credited but it demonstrates Williams’ thorough preparation. Though I’m not a German speaker myself it seemed to me, as I listened, that Williams’ German pronunciation was excellent and entirely convincing. Returning to ‘Gute Nacht’, Iain Burnside’s pianism is equally promising of what is to come. He weights the piano part ideally. Brian Newbould refers in his notes to a “dogged tread” in the music. I don’t get that with Burnside; instead, the music is characterised as a steady tramp and I think that’s just right; at this early stage in the journey the outlook isn’t entirely bleak. Throughout this performance I thought that Burnside’s playing illuminated the music expertly and he complements Williams’ approach in every respect.

Moving a little further into the cycle, I was impressed by the spooky timbre that Williams adopts for ‘Gefrorne Tränen’ and also by the way he hardens his tone for the second stanza. His delivery of ‘Der Lindenbaum’ is ideally suited to whatever sentiments are expressed in each stanza. ‘Auf dem Flusse’ presents a challenge to both singer and pianist in that Schubert’s musical means are so slender yet the song requires great expression. Williams and Burnside pass that test with flying colours. Burnside’s urgent playing immediately sets the right tone for ‘Rückblick’.

The setting of ‘Irrlicht’ is strange, the music ahead of its time. These performers distil a potent ambience. ‘Frühlingstraum’ runs a real gamut of emotions – twice over - starting in a fairly relaxed vein of contented memories but soon darkening. I think that Williams and Burnside are wholly successful in conveying all these different moods. The last song in Part I is ‘Einsamkeit’. Schubert’s setting is full of pathos, especially in the last stanza, and we hear that pathos just as obviously in the piano as in the voice.

‘Der greise Kopf’ is marvellously done. Williams perceptively deploys a wide range of vocal colours while Burnside’s playing of the piano part is perfectly judged. Genuine tension is established in ‘Im Dorfe’, the atmosphere of the dark, inhospitable streets tellingly evoked. As we approach the bleak end of Winterreise Williams and Burnside subtly ratchet up the tension and make the ambience progressively darker and chillier. Their account of ‘Der Wegweiser’ brings out the forlorn loneliness of Schubert’s setting: even the traveller’s erstwhile companion, the crow, has forsaken him. ‘Das Wirtshaus’ is such a desolate song; a graveyard is the only place where our traveller can lay his head. I’ve heard more overtly dramatic renditions of this song but Williams and Burnside make their point tellingly through stoic restraint. After the sadness of ‘Die Nebensonnen’ we arrive at the bleak utterance that is ‘Der Leiermann’. This is another song distinguished by its great economy of musical means, but what emotions lie under the surface! Williams drains his voice of colour, yet he puts so much – very naturally - into the enunciation of the text. Both musicians bring Winterreise to a hypnotic, numb conclusion.

This is a very fine traversal of Winterreise. Both Roderick Williams and Iain Burnside probe deeply below the surface of the words and music. Yet they do so in an unforced, subtle way; there’s never a suggestion that anything is done for effect. As I said earlier, they provide a strong narrative thread and I found the performance compelling. This is a worthy companion to their previous two Schubert collaborations. Williams’ singing is wonderful throughout, He is so perceptive when it comes to articulating the meaning of the words through the music. His voice is evenly produced throughout its compass – his top register is enviable in its ease and quality – and the range of tone colours he deploys suits the music at every turn. In Iain Burnside he has the ideal partner. Burnside complements and supports his singer throughout and his pianism displays an instinctive Schubertian touch. This is a perceptive and highly skilled musical partnership at work.

Jonathan Cooper has recorded the performance excellently, achieving an ideal balance between voice and piano. The booklet incudes a good note by Brian Newbould though, as with the other two volumes, it’s a minor irritant that he refers to the music in the original high keys; surely it wouldn’t have been that hard to align his note with the lower keys used by Roderick Williams?

John Quinn

Previous review: Roy Westbrook

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