Fine Winterreise in Wintry Weather from Henk Neven

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Schubert: Henk Neven (baritone), Hans Eijsackers (piano), Great Hall, Dartington.  7.2.2014 (PRB)

Hank Neven Winterreise. Pic credit Philip R Buttall
Hank Neven Winterreise. Pic credit Philip R Buttall

Winterreise, D 911

The third concert of the four-event Dartington Schubertiade series devoted to the composer’s late works, featured Dutch baritone Henk Neven, and fellow-countryman Hans Eijsackers at the piano, with a performance of Winterreise.

 Schubert’s Winterreise (Winter Journey) is a song-cycle – a setting of twenty-four poems by Wilhelm Müller, published in 1828, the final year of the composer’s life. It is, of course, the second of his two great song-cycles on Müller’s poems, with Die schöne Müllerin appearing some five years earlier.

 Both were, in fact, originally written for tenor, but are frequently transposed to suit other vocal ranges, a precedent established by the composer himself. Consequently, unlike comparing an operatic role played by one artist with that of another, performances and recordings of Winterreise are legion, with most of today’s and yesterday’s leading artists – tenor, baritone, and bass-baritone – having made significant contributions.

 In terms of the tenor perspective there are great exponents like Ian Bostridge, while Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau could almost be considered the definitive baritone; his younger compatriot Thomas Quasthoff might then weigh in for the slightly deeper-sounding bass-baritone voice.

 There will be numerous opinions as to which vocal combination best suits Schubert’s unique creation. Whether the darker and more ominous tone of many of the poems suggests a correspondingly deeper vocal timbre, or the lighter tenor tessitura offers the advantage of temporarily lifting the sense of impending doom, the crucial element would seem to match a specific voice to a specific version, in terms of choosing the most efficient key or keys for each of the songs.

 In one respect Winterreise is a programme-planner’s delight. Schubert essentially conceived the work in two convenient groups of twelve songs, which gives both performers time for a sufficient break, both physically and emotionally, and is more or less long enough altogether to sustain an evening’s programme. Indeed there would be precious little that could extend a programme, even if felt necessary, unless, perhaps a late piano work might be offered by way of an aperitif – to tack something on at the end, though, would appear musical sacrilege.

 The Great Hall at Dartington provided a perfect setting for the recital – devoid of drapes, flowers or any other unnecessary decoration, the starkness of the black concert grand set against the light-stone hearth and back wall, with just minimum lighting, helped to set the scene immediately, as the house lights dimmed.  To the accompaniment of some wisely-stationed candlelight, the two artists made their suitably understated entrance, with just an unobtrusive page-turner for company on the platform.

 Within a few bars of the opening song, Gute Nacht, one thought quickly emerged. Would the full-size grand overpower the singer? Clearly this was a very short period of adjustment as both artists acclimatised themselves to the hall’s acoustics, now with an audience in place. In terms of balance between voice and piano, Neven was able to maintain an intimacy of almost conversational quality as the song-cycle unfolded, and where Eijsackers played a crucial role in making this work so effectively.

 But another thought also manifested itself quite early on. Neven is a baritone, but even in this first song, some notes around D above middle C appeared more thinly produced than those in the lower part of the range, where there was indeed a true richness. Transposing this song from the standard low-voice key of C minor might have exacerbated this in performance.

 Again, though, this could still have been a product of initial adjustment, rather than a general ongoing trait. All in all Neven sustained the spirit, sentiment and listeners’ attention throughout, characterising every song with well-considered empathy, neither overdoing, nor conversely playing down their individual emotional substance.

 In such an intimate art-form, the piano’s contribution is paramount, not only in providing a sufficiently powerful, yet never overwhelming accompaniment, but also in finely pointing the many examples of word-painting and textural allusions, shared by the voice.

 Eijsackers did this with great aplomb, yet heartfelt sincerity, and as such almost overshadowed, though in no way intentionally nor in terms of plain dynamics, the vocal contribution by his quite superb accompaniment.

 The weather even played its part with the wind threatening a storm outside, but which, while never quite abating, was, like the over-riding morbid sentiment of Schubert’s music and Müller’s poetry, always portending menacingly in the background, too.

 But as the closing song  began its eerie scale, the question of key, which had almost seemed to become a fellow-traveller on this winter’s journey, just kept nagging, rather like the ‘growling dogs around the eponymous Hurdy-Gurdy Man’ of Müller’s poem.

 How much more effective the recital might have been, had Neven perhaps considered some of the alternative lower-key settings at times, is though a point for further discussion..

 Philip R Buttall