Keenlyside and Ax: A Rewarding Partnership in Winterreise

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert, Winterreise, D911: Simon Keenlyside (baritone), Emanuel Ax (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 24.10.2014 (MB)

 I had expected this would be an excellent, thoroughly moving performance, and so it was. Simon Keenlyside is one of our subtlest, most thoughtful, most musical baritones, and so he was here. What took me a little by surprise was the contribution of Emanuel Ax. Perhaps I have been unlucky in my experiences of his playing before, but this impressed me far more than those previous experiences had. Ax brought a strong sense of form to each song, almost as if those forms were musically ‘autonomous’, whilst in no way detracting from, indeed in every way supporting, the ‘poetic’ intent and musico-poetic alchemy. One recognised figures as one might in, say, one of the piano sonatas; one certainly registered the meaning inherent in and, in performance, communicated by every note. There was, in, for instance, ‘Der Lindenbaum’, no ‘mere’ figuration, although the part retained its pictorial element; indeed, the piano playing hinted at the consequences Schubert’s Lieder-writing might hold for the Wagnerian orchestra as Greek chorus.

Back to ‘Gute Nacht’. It opened relatively swiftly, with no room for sentimentality. Clean delivery from both artists worked very much to the benefit of the work, not least in Keenlyside’s ever-excellent diction. An occasional catch in his voice made no difference to the greater picture, in a performance of palpable sincerity. Wonderful touches of detail, for instance a diminuendo on ‘Matten’ the second time around, made all the difference. The artists were not hidebound by tradition, though by the same token they made no effort to be ‘new’ for the sake of it. ’Geforne Tränen’ was taken somewhat slower than usual, at least to start with, giving one pause for thought, but gathered pace, and, like a number of the songs, indeed proved admirably flexible in its progress, in this case setting the scene very well for an impassioned ‘Erstarrung’. Agonising dialogue with an unstable self marked the third stanza of ‘Wasserflut’, albeit of a different variety from the outright expressionism of, say, Matthias Goerne. This was perhaps still more of an interior nature. Ax’s bass line, oppressive without being over-emphasised, transformed ‘Auf dem Flusse’ into an ordeal of the soul, culminating in Keenlyside’s furious vocal climax.

‘Frühlingstraum’ again had one listen anew. The first and fourth stanzas were swifter, blither than one usually hears. Again, flexibility was very much to the fore in Keenlyside’s response to the words. Mood-swings, both vocal and pianistic, were perhaps if anything still greater than usual, especially with respect to the narcotic numbing experienced in the third and sixth stanzas. ‘Wann halt’ ich mien Liebchen im Arm?’ The piano was properly, chillingly silvery in ‘Die Krähe’ – even on a Steinway (as opposed to, say, a Bösendorfer). Here again, Ax’s iron-clad communication of form contributed greatly too, in this case to the turn of maddening; so, of course, did Keenlyside’s verbal response. Webern, unsurprisingly, was relished by Ax in ‘Letzte Hoffnung’, leading to the moment when Keenlyside seared the weeping of ‘wein’’ into our consciousness and thereafter our memories. A parallel madness of domesticity was verbally communicated in ‘Im Dorfe’, heightened, indeed in some cases led, by the obsessive nature of the piano figuration.

 The graceful piano lilt of ‘Täuschung’ seemed born, as it doubtless was, of long immersion in Schubert’s piano music; the Moments musicaux came to mind. But there was no doubt that this was something more menacing, hallucinatory. Again, it was the piano that announced a new depth of sadness in ‘Der Wegweiser,’ showing the way, as it were, for Keenlyside in its final stanza to express, now every inch a Wozzeck, his true anguish. There was no unnecessary ‘extremity’, save for in his suffering. The weariness of ‘Das Wirtshaus’ and the final, deeply moving display of virility in ‘Mut!’ followed on with frightening necessity. For me, the only miscalculation was a too-forthright rendition of ‘Die Nebensonnen’, which seemed out of place with respect to work and performance. ‘Der Leiermann,’ however, mesmerised, its final lines summoning up not only the ghost (to come) of Wozzeck, but also of the most tragic of Papagenos.

Mark Berry

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