Boesch in Winterreise: Mad or Guilty?

United StatesUnited States Schubert: Florian Boesch (baritone), Malcolm Martineau (piano), Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall, New York City, 9.5.14 (DA)

 Schubert: Winterreise, D911

 I’ve often thought that the Winterreise, a bit like the Quatuor pour le fin du temps, is the kind of work that should only ever be heard live. Doubtless that’s a bit weird, because the Schubert certainly wasn’t written to be performed in front of a large concert audience, and when I hear it I want to be very alone indeed. Yet on recordings its full impact rarely comes through. It needs the addition of sight, of movement, and of the physical shock of the singer’s vehemence and loneliness.

Clearly nobody else agrees, because Schubert’s song-cycle has become a touchstone recording for (mostly) male singers, and baritones in particular. In a crowded field, Florian Boesch’s relatively recent recording with Malcolm Martineau stands out as particularly extreme, both in voice and piano. Boesch has not yet made it in the American “market,” as a sparsely-attended date in the lesser of Carnegie’s halls attests. But he should, and soon.

The contrast with Gerald Finley’s recent Carnegie performance could not have been stronger. Finley’s singing was smooth, but Boesch’s was almost spoken—deliberately weak at times but full of raw metallic edge and furious power at others. Finley’s protagonist was stoic, determined to carry on and finding solace in walking and therefore keeping up hope, but Boesch provided a completely different narrative. His protagonist started off neurotic, wringing his hands and pacing the inches in front of the piano in the early songs, frustrated in “Gefrorne Tränen,” resentful in “Der Lindenbaum,” and hallucinatory in “Wasserflut.” Boesch kept his lines clipped, uncertain—an effect added to by Malcom Martineau’s inconsistent, unexpected accents and off-kilter phrasing. I was never sure if Boesch’s character was mad or guilty, especially in “Rast,” where Boesch yelped the final line about pangs of anguish (“Mit heissem Stich sich regen”).

Certainly he found no comfort in walking in the early stages. “Einsamkeit,” the twelfth and central song, was uncommonly forlorn, raging against the light, “alone and ignored” (“Einsam und ohne Gruss”). And there was no hope in death, as Boesch’s timidity showed when singing of the grave in “Der greise Kopf.” But this cycle is inexorable, and by “Der Wegweiser” Boesch was unleashing his creamiest voice and his longest lines, not quite accepting his fate but more open to it. And so the final songs were ambiguous: “Die Nebensonnen” sung with uncommon depth, and “Der Leiermann” totally disembodied, as if either walking or dying meant leaving his spirit behind either way. This was a thoughtful, finely-sketched, and emotionally profound performance.


David Allen

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