Ian Bostridge’s Winterreise is a Magnificent Obsession

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert: Winterreise, D. 911: performed by Ian Bostridge (tenor),Joseph Middleton (piano). The Barber Institute, Birmingham, 3.2.2014 (GR).

Ian Bostridge; (C) Sim Canetty-Clarke
Ian Bostridge; (c) Sim Canetty-Clarke

No-one had a greater explosion upon the genre of lieder than Franz Schubert and considering such a short life, his outpouring of song and melody was truly phenomenal. Winterreise (Winter Journey) based upon the poetry of Wilhelm Müller, is an iconic example. In addition to its beautiful vocal and piano music, Schubert also showed in D911 an affinity with narrative, assembling and arranging the twenty-four verses into a coherent whole. We eavesdrop on the thoughts and feelings of a rejected lover forging a melancholic traipse through ice and snow – from leaving his sweetheart’s house to an archetypal denouement. Lasting some seventy minutes, the experiences of our hero were related on 3rd Feb 2016 at the Barber – the treasured Fine Arts Institute situated on the campus of the University of Birmingham. The tenor on this occasion was perhaps England’s greatest exponent of Schubert lieder, Ian Bostridge, whose CD (and DVD) recordings of his vocal art are legendary; his ‘Grammy’ nominations number fourteen!. Here he was accompanied by another award winner, Joseph Middleton, returning to the site of his alma mater. As the anguish unfolds could the variety of mood swings the work encompasses be conveyed?

Having written a book on this very work Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession (Faber and Faber, 2015) it clearly means a lot to Bostridge; and this was evident in every dramatic nuance. Aided by the considerable keyboard technique of Middleton, the pair progressed together to present a performance that with an impressive range of dynamics and colour was both exceedingly intense and sincere.

To Middleton’s ‘walking-pace’ accompaniment, Bostridge introduced a distinct chill into the cosy atmosphere of the Barber Concert Hall, bidding his Liebchen Gute Nacht (Goodnight) in the initial number. Our narrator was crestfallen, setting the tone for the cycle. Not wanting to disturb his paramour’s dreams, he crept somewhat sheepishly away into the night: the forlorn and delicate Sacht, sacht die Türe zu! (Softly, softly the door closes!) began the  trauma of this broken man.

With its wealth of metaphorical language, it is not difficult to see why Schubert was so attracted to the verse of Müller, illustrated by the second song Die Wetterfahne (The Weather-vane). Gusts of wind (colourfully painted by Middleton) twisted the cock to and fro, causing Bostridge to ponder why his heart had been buffeted aside, more in bewilderment than cynicism.

There were some idyllic teardrops from Middleton’s fingers in Gefrorne Tränen (Frozen Tears) while I sensed a pulsating resistance to the protagonist’s fate from the tenor line – his passion still glühend heiß (burning hot). But the overriding sensation was one of Erstarrung (Numbness) from Bostridge, amidst the agitated triplets of Middleton.

Spying the bare branches of Der Lindenbaum (The Lime Tree) Bostridge evoked pleasurable memories of past rendezvous. The familiar fifth element that so delighted Schubert’s first private audience in 1827 conjured up some bitter-sweet dreams, but with the trunk devoid of its vascular organs, it was his own life’s blood that was in danger of becoming spilt. Losing his hat in the wind brought Bostridge back to earth.

The excellence of Bostridge’s diction throughout the cycle continued in Wasserflut (Torrent). As the narrative progressed, it was onwards and downwards for the storyteller and knowing that the water’s path that collected his tears were destined to pass the house he had just left, there was a powerful portrayal of angst.

A frozen crusted waterway was encountered Auf dem Flusse (At the River) allowing our hero to carve his sweetheart’s name with pride on the ice. Yet only too aware that his scratches were as ephemeral as his love, they were surrounded by a broken ring. Fearing what the ice concealed, Bostridge wound up the tension.

Middleton’s rushing semi-quavers in Rückblick (Looking Back) gave it a brisk opening. The eighth number typifies Winterreise with its strata of past and present, fancy and reality; Bostridge’s vacant tone and posture conveyed the impression that any pleasant images needed to be hastily eclipsed – the clock could not be put back.

This pensive mood continued in Irrlicht (Will o’ the Wisp) as Bostridge began to hallucinate and fluffily dream the impossible dream, but realising that love is a lottery and bewitching spells can lead the unsuspecting astray, realism took hold of him. And as fatigue overwhelmed progress, Rast (Resting) was no solution for this wanderer, he was restless and must relentlessly press on.

Frühlingstraum (Dream of springtime) delivered some exquisite Spring-like sounds, the twists and turns of D911 were artistically put across by two recitalists on the same wavelength. Müller’s poetic Doch an den Fensterscheiben, Wer malte die Blätter da? (But on the window panes, Who has been painting leaves?) was caressed by some warm legato from Middleton; Wann grünt ihr Blätter am Fenster? Wann halt’ ich mein Liebchen im Arm? (When will you leaves at the window be green? When will I hold my darling in my arms?) was peppered with pregnant pauses, underlining the poignancy of Bostridge’s plea. However the blues were everywhere as Einsamkeit (Loneliness) confirmed, bringing us to the halfway point of Schubert’s epic winter journey.

The galloping surge of Die Post (The Post-Coach) raised our traveller’s hopes but the postman never called. Bostridge’s repetitions of Mein Herz were inventive in their variation, ranging from a suggestion of unease to acute anxiety – one of my favourite bits. Even thoughts of advancing years in Der greise Kopf (The Hoary Head) failed to offer a glimmer of comfort to Bostridge’s line, a sentiment reinforced by Middleton’s sobering and partially dissonant strains. The sullen mood got dourer: the tone of Bostridge’s Wie weit noch bis zur Bahre! (How long still to the grave) struck an icy note.

The rejected Romeo’s only companion on his lonesome trek was Die Krähe (The Crow) acknowledged by Bostridge’s upward gaze, but with Hitchcock-like intent there was no love lost between bird and man: Krähe, laß mich endlich seh’n/ Treue bis zum Grabe! (Crow, let me at last behold fidelity to the grave!). Middleton’s persistent rhythmic accompaniment and Bostridge’s dynamic crescendos accentuated the sheer drama and creepiness – a great interpretation.

While Bostridge focused on the last foliage of autumn with prodigious control and  delicate pianissimo, the pitter-patter of Middleton framed a graphic picture in Letzte Hoffnung (Last Hope); a single leaf clung onto life, but hope did not spring eternal as inevitably it will fall and die, as will the ardour of this voyager.

Moving on to Im Dorfe (In the Village) the general mood continued its descending spiral, hopes like dreams fading into oblivion. Bostridge’s resignation was confirmed with Was will ich unter den Schläfern säumen? (Why linger among those asleep?); sleep will never again be a welcome haven of unconsciousness for him.

After the traumas of the night, Der stürmische Morgen (The Stormy Morning) came as something of a relief to Bostridge. This feeling was perpetuated by spying Ein Licht freundlich (a friendly light) in Täuschung (Pretence) but it was a brief interlude – a mirage intimately conveyed to the audience by Bostridge,

A nadir was reached in Der Wegweiser (The Signpost) as Müller provided his subject with one more decision to make: will he opt for the path from which there is no return? As Middleton conveyed the utter despondency of the moment, it seemed as if the words had to be dragged out of Bostridge, such was his engagement. Reaching a graveyard, his mind fuddled with cold, our story-teller was further deceived by Das Wirtshaus (The Tavern) but as with Mary and her child there was no room. What does his future hold?

Bostridge bravely put his best foot forward with an impassioned defiance in Mut! (Pluck!) determined to face the unknown, whether tangible or metaphysical. And facing the riddle of the three suns in Die Nebensonnen (The Phantom Suns) Bostridge implored the third and final one to set, so the darkness of death might embrace him. Another beautifully sad number, very dark, but does our hero really want to die? It was an open question.

As Bostridge and Middleton fluctuated the lead in Der Leiermann (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man) they left us an epilogue involving an enigmatic confrontation with a strange old man with whom a kindred spirit might possibly be found: … soll uch mit dir geh’n?/Willst zu meinen Liedern/ deine Leier dreh’n?’ (… shall I go with you?  When I sing my songs, will you play your hurdy-gurdy too?). But where will they play together, on earth or in the heavens? Wherever, it was a great story, agonisingly told.

As the last note died away, Bostridge and Middleton remained motionless. It was over a minute before the enthusiastic applause broke the trance. The execution of the duo of Schubert’s Winterreise had been a magnificent obsession.

Geoff Read

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