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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
German text and English translation included.
ERATO 9029528414 [70:26]

The poems that comprise Winterreise were written by a male poet and give expression to the thoughts of a young man. Small wonder, then, that Schubert’s cycle is most often heard sung by a man. That said, there’s a history of female singers taking on the songs. Lotte Lehmann recorded eleven of the songs in 1940 and, as my colleague Göran Forsling pointed out when reviewing a disc which included those recordings, Lehmann wasn’t the first female artist to record any of the songs: Elena Gerhardt beat her to it. More recently, the late and much-lamented Christa Ludwig recorded the cycle with James Levine for DG in the late 1980s and in 1988 Brigitte Fassbaender made a studio recording for EMI with Aribert Reimann (review). I bought that recording when it came out and found it a gripping experience thanks to the trademark intensity of Fassbaender’s singing. Since then, other female singers have recorded Winterreise, including Nathalie Stutzmann and Alice Coote, though I haven’t heard those versions.

Now into the lists comes one of my favourite singers, the American mezzo, Joyce DiDonato. Partnering her in this live performance is Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the singer tells us in the booklet that it was Nézet-Séguin who first proposed to her that they should perform Schubert’s great cycle together. She relates that she found it hard to find a way into the songs, despite her desire to do so. Interestingly, she wasn’t held back by any gender issues: as she points out, she’s accustomed to trouser roles in her operatic career. The question that nagged at her was, as she puts it, “But what about her?” Wilhelm Müller’s tragic hero is a young man disappointed in love, but the object of his devotion remains stubbornly hidden from our sight. Ms DiDonato found her pathway by reflecting on Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther, a role she has often sung. Again, we don’t know what happens to Charlotte after the opera has finished – though at least, unlike the unknown girl behind Winterreise, Charlotte has been present during the drama itself. So, Joyce DiDonato thought her way into Schubert’s songs by imagining that the doomed young man sent his journal to his unattained beloved before meeting his end. Thus, I understand, for this Carnegie Hall performance the surtitles were preceded by these words: “He sent me his journal in the post….”

I’ve related that background because it shows the care and intelligence with which Joyce DiDonato thought herself into these words and the music to which they are set. I very deliberately refrained from listening again to the Fassbaender performance when evaluating this new recording. I did that because, rightly or wrongly, recordings by a female singer are still fairly rare and I wanted to approach this new one freshly. I think the first point that I should make – and make very strongly – is that within just a few minutes I had forgotten any questions of gender and was instead caught up in a compelling performance by a great singer.

I think that Ms DiDonato brings her considerable operatic experience to these songs. I hasten to add that she does not indulge in any unwarranted theatricals. But she identifies herself with the words and with the dramatic situation. Moreover, she knows instinctively which levers to press to invest the songs with just the right degree of drama and intensity. And notice that I said ‘right degree’; there’s no excess in this performance. The other striking thing is the abundant use of vocal colour. In particular, when she goes into chest voice it always enhances the music – and, indeed, the words. The use of colour means that when we get to ‘Der Leiermann’ and she drains her voice of most of its colouring - until almost the very end of the song - we notice it all the more.

Right from the start, in ‘Gute Nacht’, I noticed the exceptional fashion in which the text is enunciated; that proves to be a harbinger of the performance as a whole. An example of the imaginative use of vocal colouring comes early on; in ‘Gefrorne Tränen’, I love the way Ms DiDonato darkens her voice, becoming very introspective, at ‘Ei Tränen, meine Tränen’. She deploys a wonderful range of expression in ‘Wasserflut’ and hereabouts, not for the last time in the performance, I jotted down in my notes “risk taking”. It seemed to me that the singer – and indeed Yannick Nézet-Séguin also – was inspired by the presence of an audience to push the boundaries a little in a way that neither might have done in a studio. Such risk-taking, if that’s what it is, always pays off in this performance. Another instance of beneficial risk-taking comes later in the cycle in the reading of ‘Der Wegweiser’.

There’s something else that happens in this performance which might not have happened in the studio: often songs will segue one into another without a discernible break. This happens frequently and adds to the build-up of tension and narrative in the performance. I was especially struck by the way in which ‘Das Wirtshaus’ follows ‘Der Wegweiser’ attacca. Only once did I feel that this elision of songs didn’t quite work. After the vigour of ‘Mut’ I wish there’d been just a little bit of a gap before the start of ‘Die Nebensonnen’. But that was one of the very few instances when I was less than wholly convinced by these artists’ vision of Winterreise.

If you want to sample this performance before committing to a purchase, try ‘Frühlingstraum’ and savour the range of expression that both singer and pianist, bring to the music – their dramatic, intense way with the second and fifth stanzas is arresting and provides a fine contrast with the rest of the song. Or you could try ‘Einsamkeit’ in which the range of dynamics deployed by both DiDonato and Nézet-Séguin really enhances the song and brings it vividly to life. Alternatively, audition ‘Das Wirtshaus’ and hear for yourself the desolate sadness of the performance. But don’t sample ‘Der Leiermann’; the otherworldly stillness and numbness of this performance can only be experienced as the culmination of the entire cycle.

This is an absolutely compelling traversal of Winterreise. The singing and characterisation are superb and Joyce Di Donato is backed by wonderfully perceptive pianism from Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Theirs is a wonderful and wonderfully thought-through interpretation caught on the wing.

The recording is very good. Ms DiDonato’s voice is caught proudly by the microphones and you can savour all the nuances of her singing. The piano is positioned a little behind the singer in the aural picture. However, that’s not unrealistic in the concert hall situation and I found that the engineers had captured the richness of the piano sound and allowed all the detail in the playing to register. Often when I review live recordings, I comment that the audience is commendably silent. That’s not quite the case here – though there’s no applause after the performance. During the cycle, however, I could detect quite a few extraneous noses, including a few small coughs – but nothing that disrupted my listening pleasure.

If you’re among the many admirers of Joyce DiDonato, this recording will be self-recommending, not least because it preserves a performance of music in which she’s perhaps less frequently heard. If you’re a devotee of Schubert Lieder you should definitely hear this recording to experience what these two very fine artists have brought to Winterreise.

John Quinn

Previous review: Michael Cookson

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