A Spell-Binding, Utterly Bleak Winterreise from Ian Bostridge and Thomas Adès

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Schubert: Ian Bostridge (tenor), Thomas Adès (piano), Barbican Hall London, 12.01.2015 (CS)

Schubert: Winterreise

“Will you play your hurdy-gurdy to my songs?” the wanderer asks.  If the answer were to be a “yes”, then the crazy but logical procedure would be to go right back to the beginning of the whole cycle and start all over again … we are trapped in the endless repetition of this existential lament.

So wrote Ian Bostridge in a recent Guardian article, reflecting on the final song, ‘Der Leiermann’ (‘The Hurdy-Gurdy Man’), of Schubert’s Winterreise, which the tenor suggests achieves a ‘wonderful circularity, with the musical-poetic serpent biting its own tail’.  Bostridge might simultaneously have been describing his own relationship with the song-cycle to which he has repeatedly returned, in performance and recording, over the past thirty years, and which he explores in his new book – Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession.  The obsession is as much the singer’s unceasing search for the musical and human truth in Schubert’s ambiguities and profundities as the wanderer’s pursuit of love and pain, life and death.

Concluding a ‘winter journey’ touring the song-cycle with pianist Thomas Adès, last night Bostridge brought Winterreise to the Barbican Hall in a performance that was disturbingly modern and austere.  The performers’ intentions were clearly evident from the first, light steps of the piano accompaniment to ‘Gute Nacht’, the soft tread of Adès’ quietly pulsing left-hand chords suggesting a weightlessness and barrenness of soul.  Reviewing the duo’s performance at the 2014 Aldeburgh Festival, I wrote: ‘while [Bostridge’s] characteristic range of vocal colour, from bright lyricism to gritty accentuation, and textual meticulousness were much in evidence, this performance had something different, and new: a sense of introspective estrangement and repressed bitterness which was not released until the final songs when the emotions finally surged in an outpouring of disillusionment and wrath, before exhaustion overwhelmed all other feeling.’  On this occasion, even the ‘lyricism’ was muted and momentary – a painfully ironic intimation of the wanderer’s delusions and of the falsity and frailty of his dreams of happiness – while the ‘grittiness’ deepened at times into a shockingly raw and abrasive sound-scape.  Estrangement and bitterness seemed to have been engulfed by existential isolation and numbness.  Yet, there was not a phrase or moment that was not ‘beautiful’ in the sense of embodying the quintessence of Schubert’s ‘meaning’.

The Barbican Hall is a far vaster arena than the intimate private salon in which Schubert gave the first preview of his new musico-poetic monodrama to his intimate circle of friends and fellow artists.  Bostridge and Adès drew the audience in close, though: the generally restrained dynamics, particularly from Adès, asked us to listen with discernment to the gestural minutiae.  The tenor’s characteristically superb diction, blending idiomatic pronunciation with expressive emphasis, and the impressive clarity of the pianist’s middle voices etched such details and nuances sensitively and eloquently.  But, that’s not to suggest that this was an introverted performance.  Bostridge sings with his whole body and soul, and – lurching clumsily, leaning languidly or exhaustedly on the piano, his stance by turns hunched then bold – he seemed at times the epitome of adolescent suffering and defiance.  The performers spoke directly to those in the furthest reaches of the Balcony, in the rear corners of the Hall.  The dramatic intensity never lessened: indeed, one might say that this was less a musical performance than simply theatre – a sung dramatic monologue.

Tempo and rubato were significant expressive elements.  An almost imperceptible pause before the final, major key stanza in ‘Gute Nacht’; slight accelerations through the piano’s rising arpeggio motif in ‘Die Wetterfahne’ (‘The weather vane’), like a rush of wind; mercurial rubati in ‘Irrlicht’ (‘Will-o’-the-wisp’) which complemented the whispered eeriness of the piano: such features brought an unpredictability to the wanderer’s futile roving which was unsettling and dramatic.

The unhurried tempo of ‘Der Lindenbaum’ established a dreamy, evasive mood, before an injection of urgency pushed the wanderer on into the cold wind.  ‘Auf dem Flusse’ (‘On the river’) was similarly leisurely, Adès’ dotted rhythm chords unbelievably gentle, though both singer and accompanist dramatically coloured the harmonic nuances.  Indeed, at times the harmonic language seemed darker and more dissonant than expected, so attentive were the performers to the music’s every expressive detail.  The slow circling of the piano at the start of ‘Die Krähe’ was hallucinatory, taking us to uncanny realms where Bostridge’s rasping expressive timbre deepened the weird disquiet.

Perhaps there was a danger in the central sequence of songs that the onward movement would dissipate entirely, weakening the natural eloquence of the vocal line; that all would simply fragment and disperse.  But, with ‘Der stürmische Morgen’ (‘The stormy morning’) there was a burst of motion, Bostridge moving quickly through the text, and the final songs of the cycle which succeeded each other organically were skilfully structured and balanced.

Bostridge and Adès’ relished the contrasts – of mood, volume, texture, harmony.  The dynamics swelled and retreated (as at the close of ‘Geforner Tränen’); and a more substantial sense of ‘presence’ was achieved through the contrasting dynamics of ‘Letzte Hoffnung’ (‘Last hope’), before the song succumbed to the dreadful lassitude in the final lines that comes with disillusionment as the singer weeps ‘auf meiner Hoffnung Grab’ (‘on the grave of my hopes’).

Similarly, the brief suggestion of the major tonality in the third stanza of ‘Rast’ (‘Rest’) was made unexpected and strange.  And, the warmth of the opening stanza of ‘Die Post’ faded sadly with the turn to the minor key for the second verse when no letter of love was forthcoming to quell the wanderer’s beating heart.

Adès meticulously painted a landscape – or rather two, one literal and the other psychological.  The frozen drops which fall, unbeknown, on wanderer’s cheeks in ‘Gefrorner Tränen’ conjured the sharp fragility of a stalactite’s point.  In ‘Frühlingstraum’ (‘Dream of spring’) the piano’s slow staccato motif pointed the irony of the text, while in ‘Einsamkeit’ the contrast in between the repeating quavers in the left hand and the melody in the right suggested a gap or ‘absence’, indicative of the ‘loneliness’ of the title.

Bostridge used the text to highlight the wanderer’s obsessions and paranoia, frequently pointing references to ‘burning’ which recur in the texts, evoking the fiery, dangerous heat of passion or madness which finally surrenders to the icy landscape.  And, as in ‘Die Krähe’, the tenor was not afraid to use an ‘ugly’ timbre to convey meaning.  In ‘Der Wegweiser’ (‘The signpost’), the light buoyancy of the wanderer’s recollection of his ‘foolish yearning’ gave way to pallid dejection at the close; ‘Mut’ (‘Courage’) closed with an angrily defiant cry; ‘Das Wirthaus’ was drained of tone and energy, until the concluding resurgence of will: ‘Nun weiter den, dur wieter,/ Men treuer Wanderstab!’ (‘On, then, press onwards,/ My trusty staff!’)   In ‘Wasserflut’, so vulnerable and resigned was the wanderer’s plea to the snow, ‘Sag’, wohin doch geht dein Lauf?’ (‘Tell me, where does your path lead?’), so pained and poignant the outburst of burning grief, that it seemed as if singer and song were one.

Bostridge has performed Winterreise over 100 times.  His interpretations, with different partners and in different contexts, have evolved, as have his musical priorities, and indeed his voice itself.  Here, the final words of the concluding lines of each stanzas of ‘Der Leiermann’ were not allowed to linger; and, the slightest of silences before the final chord intimated a terrifying silence – the questions that the cycle poses are not answered.  After this performance – spell-binding, persuasive and utterly bleak – it is hard to imagine how much further Bostridge can take Schubert’s wanderer?  Perhaps he has reached the end of the journey …

Claire Seymour


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