No More Surtitles! Who Cares What Schubert’s Poets Wrote?  

United StatesUnited States Schubert: Winterreise, Matthias Goerne (baritone), Markus Hinterhäuser (piano), White Light Festival, Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York 11.11.2014 (SSM)

William Kentridge: Concept and Video
Sabine Theunissen: Set Design
Greta Goiris: Costume Design
Herman Sorgeloos: Lighting Design
Snezana Marovic: Video Editor


This is the 9th review of Winterreise published this year at Seen and Heard. What is it about this work of infinite sadness that calls out to singers, and to listeners who fill venues to hear it? We’ve had Winterreises that encompass all kinds of approaches: one highlights “estrangement and repressed bitterness” and another “could not have been stronger“; one expresses “palpable sincerity” while another is “uncommonly forlorn.” This Lincoln Center performance was strikingly different from any of the previous ones. The philosophical underpinning took priority over the music and ultimately produced a dissatisfying evening that failed to convince either musically or philosophically.

Video artist William Kentridge posits in his writing in Playbill and in his lecture at the University of Chicago, “Listening to the Image,” that because we don’t understand every word that comes from a singer on stage, we should instead “listen to the image.” Stating that he is in a “precarious terrain: a celebration of incomprehension,” Kentridge wants to “redeem that [incomprehension] with the imaginative gain this lack produces.” He decries singers of Schubert who want the words they sing to be understood, and makes fun of Fisher-Dieskau for his perfect diction, nylon pants and cardigan sweaters, stating that in the 1970s he would have been considered “retro-hipster cool.” His model for the ideal Schubertian singer is Charles Panzera, a baritone who flourished during the first half of the 20th century. I suspect Kentridge admires Panzera’s Schubert because his recordings on scratchy old 78s and LPs make it difficult to understand the words. And isn’t incomprehension the goal?

I was disappointed that there weren’t any surtitles, but the reason soon became clear. This was intentional and part of Kentridge’s video concept: the lack of surtitles leaves all but the most erudite listener at a loss for words, and that loss is what he desires. The average listener, confused enough without words for Schubert’s 24 songs, becomes totally confounded by images that have little to do with the song cycle.

In point of fact, Kentridge intentionally chooses to frame images that go against the sound and the text itself. He claims that he was “not finding (nor looking for ) illustrations of the songs,” but seeking instead a connection that is “rhythmic, textual, iconic.” It seems to me that the best connection would be images that represent what the song is trying to convey rhythmically, textually and iconically. In Schubert’s “Auf dem Fluss” and “Wasserflut,” Kentridge may feel that there is a stronger connection to images of a bathroom shower than to one of floods, but on any level wouldn’t images of streams and floods be as close as one could get to connecting rhythmically, textually and iconically? He praises the distances between images and music so that those in which there are great disparities are like “…a letter form another world But there is always distancing.” Yet there are songs here where images perfectly match the music, such as the notes on a pianola roll that represent the tears in “Gefrorne Tränen.”

 Kentridge is from Johannesburg, a far cry fromVienna, and his videos include texts about unrest in his homeland and silhouettes of South Africans playing games indigenous to the region. But what does a parade of women carrying baskets on their heads or a hanging tree where bodies fall like apples have to do with an organ-grinder in the final song, “Die Leiermann”?

 Several years back I saw a joint collaboration between William Christie’s group and Robyn Orlin in a production of Handel’s L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato.  Coincidently, she too pushed the accompanying videos with images from South Africa, and there was often little connection between the images and the words. This was tolerable because the singers were great and most of the images were innocuous. In contrast to Kentridge, who rationalizes why he prefers not to synchronize the music with images, Orlin’s dancers were in synch with the singers and orchestra.

 What Kentridge is really doing here is sabotaging the musical recital with his images. In his lecture, he theorizes three possible ways images can reflect the music being played. The first is what he calls the “emotional” connection: sad music is accompanied by sad images. The second is grammatical: the images respond to (are in sync with) the music, as in Disney’s Fantasia. But it is the third that interests him the most, and that is using “sound to change what we see and what we then see will change what we hear.” We give precedence to the image so that it affects our hearing the music.

 Kentridge’s subtitle of a section in his lecture “Listening to the Image” says it all: “Who Need Words.” It is a grand presumption to grant power to images as a way of distorting text and music. Shouldn’t we concern ourselves with the words of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion or Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas?

 Matthias Goerne held well to the music, giving some attention to the visuals and expressing convincing emotions when called for. Markus Hinterhäuser played conservatively, if sometimes stiffly, but never went very far to enhance Goerne’s more emotional songs.

 Finally, why is credit given to Greta Goiris for costume design unless Mr. Goerne’s brown suit qualifies as a costume.

Stan Metzger

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