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Schubert winterreise TTK0078
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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Winterreise, D911
Michael Wilmering (baritone)
Daan Boertien (piano)
rec. 2021, Westvest90 Church, Schiedam, Netherlands
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
TRPTK TTK0078 [76:00]

One of the oddities of reviewing classical recordings is that I find myself listening repeatedly to pieces of music which most listeners only listen to once in a while. I can’t imagine there are many listeners, for example, who put themselves through the harrowing experience of Winterreise several times in the course of a day. Listening in this way does change what I admire most in recordings. I have noticed that more dramatic or histrionic approaches which initially grab my ear quickly pall on further exploration. Conversely, I find myself experiencing greater admiration for those accounts which espouse musical virtues over more subjective or even autobiographical aspects of the music. Recording takes the listener even further from the one off experience of the concert hall. This adds another dimension to be considered: even if a piece like Winterreise is an occasional listening experience what kind of listening experience is the listener after? Winterreise must, by definition, take the listener on a journey but what kind of journey?

This new recording by the Dutch pairing of Michael Wilmering and Daan Boertien sets out its stall from the first note. Where most accounts set out with a determined stride, Wilmering and Boertien are very slow and gentle indeed. In this way they signal that their journey will be an internal one as much as an external one. Despite Wilmering’s sometimes operatic manner, there is little sense that what we are listening to is a kind of opera by another name. It is something of a cliché to talk about the pianist in Winterreise being more than an accompanist but Boertien is for me the defining presence in this recording, by which I mean no slight on Wilmering’s singing. It is just that I find that, like the famous Pears Britten version, it is the pianist who sets the mood. The opening pulse of Gute Nacht, the first song, gives a great idea of his subtlety. For all the slow speed, there is no shortage of feeling. I don’t recall a recording of this song cycle that reminded me so much and so often of the last three piano sonatas. The drama here is in the music not in some kind representation of events.

As is often noted, Winterreise starts off as yet another tale of unrequited love before eventually wandering off into much stranger territory, the faithless beloved long forgotten. Any successful account must find a way to take the listener on the same path. Compared to some accounts, I think of Fischer-Dieskau particularly, the early songs on this new recording might seem a little lacking in intensity or even frenzy – the great German baritone could be ferocious particularly as his voice aged. The sting of lost love here never seems so very painful for all the ache in Wilmering’s voice. I expect many listeners will want more variety of colouration in his voice and more in the way of acting with the voice. This traveller on the grim road of Winterreise already seems half in love with that path from the first bar. There is an ecstatic, almost trance like quality to the music making which again seemed to link to the other pieces of Schubert’s final years rather than set Winterreise apart as the great exception.

I mentioned the plangent tone to Wilmering’s singing and that note of loss and farewell predominates. Neither pianist nor singer seem much interested in a hard edged traversal of these spare songs. There is wistful regret but not much angst or rage. One effect is that we hear again how lovely the melodies of even the bleaker, more stripped back songs are. Normally Wasserflut is a pretty grim experience but listen to the pale beauty that Wilmering and Boertien find in it. The same could be said of the next song Auf dem Flusse. There might seem to be a risk of turning Winterreise into Meissen porcelain prettiness but the effect, in fact, is deeply affecting. It becomes a deeply human experience rather than a dehumanising one. Cumulatively, we experience the human in extremis but always human. Perhaps more importantly, leave taking is without the doubt the central experience of Schubert’s final years and the distinctive place almost between life and death from which his final masterpieces emerge. Without that sense of saying goodbye, Winterreise can never take us to the profound places of the towering masterpieces with which the cycle ends. There are many ways of doing this and Wilmering and Boertien have happened upon a poetic and nuanced way of their own.

In the press release that accompanied this recording, the performers spoke of the healing power of music and the paradox of late Schubert has always been that, in staring, as few artists have, into the abyss he is able to speak consoling words to us without a hint of the patronising or the sentimental. It is this quality, I believe, that makes so many people think of the String Quintet as suitable music for their own funeral. As this recording proceeds, the quality of gentleness with which it began deepens further. Intriguingly, the plaintive note in Wilmering’s voice I mentioned earlier largely disappears as if the sentimentality inherent in all the responses of a spurned lover has drained away.

In Fruhlingstraum, the concluding section of each version, rather being the last word in dejection becomes confiding and strangely consoling. I was put in mind of the Buddhist idea that all worldly suffering results from attachment. This sounds like someone letting go and experiencing an almost mystical release as a consequence.

There are almost too many recommendable recordings of this cycle to make comparisons all that meaningful. The cynical side of me imagines that releasing a Winterreise is a lot cheaper and less risky than recording a Wagner opera. It is impossible to imagine any new recording having the kind of impact that those of Fischer-Dieskau had. New recordings must content themselves with adding to our experience of this remarkable cycle. As I indicated earlier, I will be adding this to my list of recordings where the pianist has something distinctive to say. In this, Boertien joins the illustrious company of the likes of Britten and Adès in his recent revelatory live version with Bostridge. Boertien is a similarly endless source of delight. Even the seemingly plain spun figurations of Die Post are coloured with consummate care under his fingers. Listen to the ache he finds in the arching melody of Täuschung – not too much but just enough. This ability to judge the fine gradations of emotion transforms what look like very few notes on the page into a penetrating musical vision.

By the time we get to the final songs we start to hear where all of this insistence on musical rather than histrionic values has been heading. The middle section of Der Weigweiser seems to hover on the edge of another world before its opening music returns. It is all the more terrifying for being so understated. Singer and pianist are in absolute communion here. Characteristically, the climax isn’t overdone but all the more devastating for their restraint.

But that is only the beginning of this extraordinary sequence. Wirthaus is given a broad, sad and, again, superbly gentle rendering. Wilmering’s voice is warm and consoling, all trace of the neurotic gone. The sense of saying farewell to the world is simultaneously heartbreaking and yet accepted. In an interview about his own new recording of Winterreise, Benjamin Appl suggested the intriguing idea of the cycle as endless with the performance ending with a reprise of the opening song. This is not the message delivered by Wilmering and Boertien. This is a journey from which no one returns. Winterreise becomes a message of care to help us all, at some point, in taking that path.

Schubert is not yet done and Mut is less a shaking of the fist at the cruelty of fate as an exercise in clearing the head for the final pair of songs. The hallucinatory nature of Nebensonnen becomes a standing on the threshold. If Wirtshaus is a goodbye then Nebensonnen feels here like going. The poignancy in this performance would be almost unbearable but for Boertien’s warm solicitous kindness at the keyboard. In all of these last songs, Wilmering sounds in the grip of a trance, stunned with wonder. To continue my extended metaphor, Der Leiermann seems to come from the other side. Typically, it is both alarming and reassuring. Wilmering’s singing of the final verse is something very special. Not many performances make me want to start all over again but this is one of them. Returning to Gute Nacht, the phrase “in my beginning is my end” takes on a peculiarly appropriateness. The great song cycle has always been about mortality and this, it seems to me, is a great performance of it.

David McDade



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