Ian Bostridge and Winterreise in Winterthur: But Not as You Might Know it

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Schubert arr. Zender: Musikkollegium Winterthur, Thomas Zehetmair (conductor), Ian Bostridge (tenor), Stadthaus, Winterthur, 4.12.2016. (JR)

Schubert arr. Zender – Winterreise

Any performance of Winterreise is surely, as Bostridge puts it, ‘a great feast of the musical calendar: an austere one, but one almost guaranteed to touch the ineffable as well as the heart’. Ian Bostridge is ‘Artist in Resonance’ in Winterthur, a small town just north of Zurich. I’m not quite sure why Winterthur is so fortunate, but let’s put it down to personal friendship with the Intendant of the Musikkollegium and a love of the works of Caspar David Friedrich at the local very fine art museums.

Bostridge is, to use a word from the title of his recent book about the work, obsessed with the Winterreise.  He has sung it, all over the world, over the last thirty years. You can hear Bostridge’s obsession in every word, every nuance, every rolled ‘r’ (as in ‘mit harter starrer Rinde’ in ‘Auf dem Flusse’). Occasionally, he even looks in physical pain as he sings of the wanderer’s travails. Today, Winterreise is treated by lovers of Lieder with the utmost respect and affection, almost giving it a mythical status with transcendental qualities. At the time, some thought that the state of excitement in which Schubert wrote these beautiful songs of lament, may have contributed to his early death. It certainly therefore is an act of bravery to tamper with Schubert’s original; by and large Zender does not tamper but replaces the solo piano with gentle orchestration.

For many classical music lovers, Lieder are a special and minority interest. It does help the appreciation of these songs if you understand German; in his book Bostridge provides his own translation. Normally, of course, Lieder recitals take place in smaller halls, such as the Wigmore, and the singer is accompanied by solo piano. The question was therefore raised, in the after-concert talk, whether adding a small orchestra helped appreciation of the work. Only one brave listener thought it did.

The Stadthaus in which the concert took place doubles as the Town Hall and is an ideal size for a Lieder recital. The acoustics were perfect.

Bostridge’s light lyrical tenor is simply perfect for the Winterreise, I think he portrays the anguish of the winter wanderer even more poignantly than Fischer-Dieskau or Schreier, great though those performances were. I was lucky to hear the latter in Birmingham many years ago. (Incidentally, Bostridge is impressed with Christine Schaefer’s recent recording.). The work can clearly withstand a variety of voices, but an orchestral accompaniment?

Hans Zender is a German composer and Music Professor, now 80; he wrote his orchestral accompaniment about 25 years ago. Bostridge thinks highly of Zender’s work, he would not sing it otherwise. Whether you like the orchestrated version, is simply a matter of taste. I think both can stand in their own right, like the piano version of Pictures at an Exhibition or Ravel’s orchestration which has become the more popular version; or Verklärte Nacht with string sextet or Schoenberg’s own later arrangement for string orchestra (there is also a version for three pianos).

Zender’s orchestra is quite small consisting of a few single string players, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, a horn, a trumpet, a trombone, some percussion, accordion and guitar. The most plangent sounds emanate from the guitar and accordion, though I felt the latter occasionally reminded me inappropriately of a Parisian bistro. The string players are asked to make some fairly ugly sounds with their bows and instruments and the wind machines are kept busy whenever a storm is brewing. Pipes with rice in them conjure up the falling icy rain. I found the Sprechgesang passages effective but at one point Bostridge has to shout, his voice amplified by the sound system, to be heard above quite a cacophony from the orchestra – this is not Zender’s finest hour. Schubert would doubtlessly turn in his grave.

Wind and brass players come onto the stage, playing, after the piece has begun, during the piece and disappear before it has ended. However quietly it’s done, it’s a distraction (Haydn and Schnittke do it better). Only in the post-horn passage (‘Die Post’) did I feel an off-stage post horn appropriate.

The trombonist had an off night, but the remainder of the Musikkollegium played with visible courage. The applause (and ovation) was, however, for Bostridge alone.

To sum up: the Zender version is well worth hearing – but probably only once; at times it has gimmicky elements. As the piece progresses, it veers from the realistic, with three competing and disconcerting tempi in ‘Die Nebensonnen’. A shame Zender does not employ a real hurdy-gurdy for the last and the most haunting of songs, ‘Der Leiermann’, a work of true genius. The piece ends, however, to good effect with eerie discord.

Bostridge will be back in Switzerland (both Zurich and Winterthur) in the New Year (April 9th and 10th to be exact), singing Mahler’s Rückert Lieder in an orchestrated version by Gerhard Müller-Hornbach and the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen in an orchestrated version by Colin Matthews.

John Rhodes

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