Salzburg Festival 2011: A magnificent, searching Winterreise

August 25, 2011

AustriaAustria Schubert,  Winterreise: Simon Keenlyside (baritone), Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano). Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 22.8.2011 (MB)

It would be difficult to come up with a superior replacement for an ailing Thomas Quasthoff than Simon Keenlyside. Indeed, if the truth be told, my preference would initially have been for Keenlyside, the present performance doing much to confirm that preference. Pierre-Laurent Aimard was an interesting choice as pianist; or should that be Schubert was an interesting choice for Aimard? There was often, as one might have expected, a modernistic slant to his performance, at times a little ‘objective’, not necessarily a bad thing, though at other times, his was a piano reading that showed itself fully, furiously committed. At any rate, this was not a routine Winterreise: Schubert’s great cycle emerged as a terrifying psychodrama, at times Romantic, at others expressionistic, but never comfortable.

Gute Nacht opened with promise, Aimard presenting a soft yet inexorable tread. Throughout, he proved alert to the ‘musical’ as well as ‘poetic’ form, ironclad formal certainty doing nothing to diminish poetic drama, but rather enhancing it, the rhythmic command of Die Post a case in point. He clearly knew when to support Keenlyside’s development and when to press into the dramatic foreground. If there was a certain neutrality to the piano tone in Die Wetterfahne and Gefrorne Tränen, the Debussy premonitions, Pelléas-like, of Erstarrung were testament to something particular and telling that he was able to bring to Schubert: a frightening ill wind. The violence with which the third stanza of Der Lindenbaum opened was superbly judged: deeply felt in the bones, yet quite without theatrical overstatement. By contrast, the coldness of the piano in Auf dem Flusse told its story. The strangeness of Schubert’s harmonies in Irrlicht looked forward to late Liszt, rendering harmonic consolation all the more moving, whilst Mozartian delicacy in the introduction to Frühlingstraum complemented and yet ambivalently questioned Keenlyside’s lyricism. Is it not already too late to dream of springtime’s ‘bunten Blumen’? Whilst one might expect the extraordinary kinship to Webern of Letzte Hoffnung to play to Aimard’s strong suit, it was still striking how much it did. But kinship to the Schubert of the Impromptus was equally apparent, in songs such as Täuschung and Das Wirtshaus. I should be intrigued to hear Aimard in more late Schubert. Finally, the ability to make the slightest (if only apparently so) variation tell in Der Leiermann was indicative of musical and dramatic certainty.

Keenlyside’s integrity – both as artist and ‘character’ – was palpable from the opening of the first song, bespeaking gentleness and hope: this was almost a Papageno verloren. There was great drama, in a more or less traditional sense, to be heard, for instance the overspill of bitterness at the close of Auf dem Flusse, but equally revealing were subtle changes in coloration, for instance the use of head voice upon the repetition of ‘Daß ich geweinet hab’?’ in Gefrorne Tränen. Yes, we noticed that the protagonist was weeping, but inwardly.Unheimlich use of head voice would chill, not least on account of its perfect integration – this was no mere ‘effect’ – in Auf dem Flusse too, rendering that subsequent explosion all the more terrifying. Wasserflut, immediately beforehand, had prepared the way: ardent, but not beautiful, Keenlyside brave enough sparingly to employ ugliness where necessary. And so, when two maiden eyes glowed in Rückblick, we fully experienced the psychosis of recollection, leading inexorably to a sickened tiredness in Rast, its weariness almost Parsifalian. (The Prelude to Act III came to mind.) In that context, the youthful ardour one still could hear in Frühlingstraum brought a tear to my eye, though of course one knew that it was too late, as the painful, hallucinogenic beauty and concluding anger (‘Grabe’) of Die Krähe would make clear. By the time we reached Im Dorfe, there was a terrible sense of desperately trying to keep everything together, the insistence on order both necessary and fooling no one. Der Wegweiser was sung with the desperate dignity of a Wozzeck, who returned definitively, frozen, in Der Leiermann.

Whether the Grosse Festspielhaus is the most appropriate venue for such a recital is open to question; the Mozarteum has a relatively intimate hall in which song recitals generally take place. Still, one can appreciate that audience demand might have played a role in the decision. What a pity, then, that so much of the audience proved incapable of remaining quiet, or in at least two cases, in their seats. Coughing was at a level that would have irritated, or worse, even at the height of the influenza season. The woman sitting in front of me seemed unable to keep her hands off her male companion. There was a dreadful whistling noise throughout much of the final stanza of Gute Nacht. And, to top it all, a mobile telephone from the row behind me rang at the end of Die Nebensonnen: heartbreaking preparation in the worst sense for Der Leiermann. Given such appalling behaviour, it is a tribute to the artists that the performance affected me as it did. Yes, there were occasional slips, but so what? I felt numb as after a fine performance of Tristan or Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, unable and unwilling to talk.

Mark Berry

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