Hans Zender’s Remarkable Response to Schubert’s Winterreise Vividly Personified by Ian Bostridge

United KingdomUnited Kingdom The Dark Mirror: Zender’s Winterreise: Ian Bostridge (tenor); Britten Sinfonia/Baldur Brönnimann. Barbican Theatre, 12.5.2016. (CC)

Director, designer and video artist – Netia Jones

Hans Zender’s response to Schubert’s Winterreise – or, as he puts it, a “composed interpretation” – is utterly remarkable. It was first performed in 1993, and takes in Weimar cabaret, modernist gesture and of course Schubert’s original masterpiece. That Bostridge was the soloist tonight brought a special feel to the performance: he has lived with Schubert’s masterpiece for nearly 30 years, and has even written a book on it. Netia Jones, who stages this production as “The Dark Mirror”, finds that Zender’s transformations of Schubert conjures up for her Expressionist theatre, cabaret and early experimental theatre. It adds up to quite a ride.

This winter journey begins with metal sheets brushed against timpani representing the wanderer’s footsteps; pizzicato strings and pecking woodwind join the ongoing tread before melodic shapes try to morph into Schubert’s first phrase. They fail in their attempt, initially, and the resultant downward glissandi are utterly reminiscent of Mahler. Bostridge, in tails at this point, could be a concert singer but he could also be an evening compere in Kurt Weill’s Berlin or in a pop-up Weimar entertainment, an impression confirmed by the Sprechgesang delivery of some of the lines of the first song before it suddenly veers back to Schubert’s line. (The same tactic of Sprechgesang is mightily effective in ‘Wasserflut’ at the lines “Schnee, du weisst von meinen Sehnen”.) Initially, we were deprived by shadows of Bostridge’s face, an element of mystery that seemed to draw us further into this murky, transmogrified world.

The stage is sparse: a leafless tree onstage, opposite the instrumentalists, and an upwardly sloping path on which Bostridge spends a lot of time. Video is projected against the back, perhaps predictably often of Winter scenery, or of close-ups of a gaunt Bostridge. Physical winter wind invocations in ‘Wetterfahne’ are visceral indeed; in fact this song seemed to exemplify the nightmarish aspect of Zender’s work perfectly as did, perhaps, the layered imitations of ‘Die Nebensonnen’, themselves bleeding, perhaps less interruptively, into the final ‘Der Leiermann’.

The use of guitar and harp in the opening to ‘Der Lindenbaum’ is very effective, a close and imaginative response to Schubert’s piano writing; the sudden morph to accordion accompaniment wrests it to another place, to that Weimar/Berlin night space, and perhaps one full of hallucinogenic fairground mirrors, too. Even the clarion fanfares of ‘Die Post’ take a long time to come into focus, and when they do they cannot settle for more than a bar or two. As the cycle progresses Zender just manages to avoid making the unpredictable predictable; he is capable of subtlety, too, though detractors would certainly disavow this – just try the opening of ‘Frühlingstraum’. Bostridge was beautifully honeyed here; elsewhere he was powerful, both in voice and in acting. This is exactly his territory. His legato in the phenomenally transformed ‘Die Krähe’ was a thing of wonder, a song in which the oboe takes over the role of the squawking bird perfectly. The Britten Sinfonia, under Baldur Brönnimann, were beyond criticism throughout, the concentration hardly wavering an iota all evening.

Zender’s triumph is one of a polystylism that remains inextricably linked to Schubert’s original in which the vocal line, at least, is largely untouched (in comparison to the accompaniments). Is this, then, a work of genius? Some colleagues of mine in the musico-critical fraternity have suggested it is far, far less than that, finding it gimmicky, schmucky and fundamentally flawed. Yet if it is those things, how can it move, and grip, to such a great degree, as it did on this occasion? True, that special glow of Romantic poetic references to tropes such as nightingales and linden trees is lost, the nostalgia twisted into a mere shadow of itself; and one has to admit that Zender’s composed interpretation is not for everyday consumption. But, then, neither is Winterreise itself. This was by far the best Bostridge performance of anything I have seen. The piece suits him perfectly.

A great evening.

Colin Clarke