In Volle’s Winterreise, an elusive Everyman

AustriaAustria Schubert: Michael Volle, Helmut Deutsch. ‘Salon am Hof’, Park Hyatt Hotel, Vienna. 14.2.2016. (SS)

Schubert, Winterreise, D 911

Wagner casting in Vienna has been notably enhanced by Michael Volle’s relatively recent rise to international prominence, but audiences here have had few chances to see him in recital. This welcome opportunity to hear his Winterreise came courtesy of ‘Salon am Hof’, a new song recital series in an opulent wood-paneled room at the new Park Hyatt hotel in downtown Vienna.

Needing no time to get into his stride, Volle gave one of those Lieder performances which sustained a high level of technical and musical excellence from the beginning through to the very end. A ‘Leiermann’ tempo insistently driven by the hurdy-gurdy might have been slightly less clipped, but it was clear that singer and pianist had associations in mind other than the usual frozen somberness of this final song. Otherwise, there wasn’t a musical choice to split hairs about. Poetic Lieder style opened up smoothly into full operatic voice for Schubert’s climactic melismas, to which Volle brought a range of colors and effects: a wrenching yowl at the end of ‘Wasserflut’, a bitter snarl for ‘Der greise Kopf’, and affected airiness – an unorthodox approach, but it worked – for ‘keiner ging zurück’ in ‘Der Wegweiser’.

Volle’s overall take on the cycle was less linear and psychodramatic than the norm and his Wanderer’s path more taken from moment to moment. There was much sensitivity to the phrasing, but articulating something rather more elusive than self-absorption. Ultimately, his protagonist came across as a protean figure, which produced some interesting ambiguities (one being that he sounded like neither a young nor an old man). Flashes of ferocity were quickly contained and the male ego itself seemed softened, distancing the cycle’s melancholy and alienation from the Romantic hero archetype.

I’m prone to suffering the same excitement deficit with Helmut Deutsch as with his fellow Austrian Rudolf Buchbinder – both fine pianists with their admirers, but very chained to orthodoxy and the refinement thereof. Buchbinder at least has a sense of drama, while Deutsch is seemingly content to remain the ‘accompanist’. That said, the nuances of his touch and pedaling came out of the shadows more in the intimate and slightly harder-edged acoustic of this ‘Grand Salon’. It was good to hear him come to the fore in ‘Der stürmische Morgen’, which was as flashy as Deutsch generally gets, and his tone swelled to grand organ-like sonority at the end of ‘Das Wirtshaus’.

Aside from moments like ‘Wunderlicher Alter’ – sung with a wide-eyed gaze – this Winterreise lacked the solemn way with text that Volle has in his native language, and especially in his Wagnerian roles. But this performance was no less satisfying for taking a different tack and positioning the protagonist as more of an Everyman who experiences his journey as a series of fragmented moments with no immediately clear point. This wasn’t a very raw Winterreise nor a cerebral one; but the idea that the life of the soul at its center had lost its narrative was there, and with no straightforward answers.

Seb Smallshaw

Leave a Comment