Schubert winterreise ABCD509
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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Winterreise, Op. 89, D911(1827) - Song cycle to poems by Wilhelm Müller
Arttu Kataja (baritone)
Pauliina Tukiainen (piano)
rec. 8-12 February 2021, the Apollosaal, Staatsoper unter den Linden, Berlin
ALBA ABCD509 [72:33]

In my survey of thirty Winterreise recordings, I explained that I had excluded singers whose voices either wobbled or sounded constricted and I am pleased to observe that Finnish baritone Arttu Kataja here evinces neither of those fundamental faults; while there is nothing especially individual or distinctive about his sound or manner, he has a firm, rounded tone with resonant low notes and an easy top; in short, a voice which falls very pleasantly on the ear. He sings in impeccable German, enunciating the text clearly and enjoys sensitive, spirited accompaniment from his compatriot pianist Pauliina Tukiainen.

Having said that, I suppose I could end my review there but both the MusicWeb readership and editorial board might take a dim view of such niggardliness, so let me elaborate. I never tire of this greatest of song cycles and it is a rare recording which does not both illuminate and entertain – unless the singer’s essential vocal equipment is in some way impaired which, I repeat, is not the case here. I agree with the brief, poetic but anonymous note - possibly written jointly by the two artists here - which maintains that despite there being some 300 recordings of Winterreise available in online streaming services, a new recording is justified as “each personal interpretation of Winterreise is personal and legitimate.”

Kataja’s large voice and its timbre reminds me of a young Bernd Weikl but with more bass weight. As is often the case with bigger, darker voices, as such in some songs he takes a little longer than lighter-voiced singers to negotiate the music, but that does not mean that he is clumsy or lugubrious, even if the centre of his voice tends towards a bass-baritone colour, as in the low Gs of Irrlicht. The most obvious example of his taking his time to advantage is in that final, famous song, Der Leiermann, over which he takes something like a minute longer than many interpreters but that is no criticism as it lends the song an appropriately chilled, mesmeric quality. On the other hand, Kataja displays considerable fleetness and dexterity in some of the faster songs, so overall the timing of the cycle is in no way unusual - and he has no trouble with the faster sections of songs like Rückblick. Just occasionally he unleashes some true operatic power in his voice, as in “es schrieen die Raben vom Dach” in the otherwise delicate Frühlingstraum.

He observes many of the details I always look for in any recording of this cycle, such as the emphasis he applies on the line in the first song, “Lass irre Hunde heulen” (Let stray dogs howl), trilling the double “r” and leaning on the German word for “dogs” or, in a favourite song, Die Krähe, lending “wunderliches Tier” (strange creature) a kind of awe, eerily echoed in the final song about the “Wunderlicher Alter” (strange old man) at whom the dogs snarl - “die Hunde knurren” - again with the double “r” trilled - and maintaining legato to emulate the smooth wheeling of the crow in flight. Occasionally, as in that song or Gefror’ne Tränen, I would like Pauliina Tukiainen to rein in her percussive touch and play more gently to convey the gentle dropping of the frozen tears more subtly, but those are passing objections. She deals well with the fast passages in songs such as rumbling bass accompaniment to Erstarrung. Perhaps the most famous song in the sequence, Der Lindenbaum, renowned for the simple, strophic charm of its tune alternating with another little rushing riff, simulating the wind stirring the leaves, is ideally performed by both interpreters as is Das Wirtshaus, its melancholy beauty being all the more effective for being delivered in so restrained a manner.

Kudos to the Alpha label for providing the essential German texts with both English and Finnish translations, the latter obviously being aimed at their domestic market.

This is an account worthy to stand alongside those by Arttu Kataja’s fellow Finnish predecessors Martti Talvela and Jorma Hynninen.

Ralph Moore

Gute Nacht [5:13]
Die Wetterfahne [1:40]
Gefror'ne Tränen [2:18]
Erstarrung [2:57]
Der Lindenbaum [4:42]
Wasserflut [4:29]
Auf dem Flusse [3:22]
Rückblick [2:10]
Irrlicht [2:53]
Rast [3:17]
Frühlingstraum [4:21]
Einsamkeit [2:58]
Die Post [2:21]
Der greise Kopf [3:10]
Die Krähe [2:08]
Letzte Hoffnung [1:54]
Im Dorfe [2:56]
Der stürmische Morgen [0:52]
Tauschung [1:36]
Der Wegweiser [3:54]
Das Wirtshaus [4:14]
Mut [1:33]
Die Nebensonnen [2:04]
Der Leiermann. [4:16]