A Journey in Words, Music and Images: a ‘Parallel’ Winterreise at the Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert, Winterreise – A Parallel Journey: Matthew Rose (bass), Gary Matthewman (piano) in collaboration with Victoria Crowe (artist). Wigmore Hall, London 15.2.2017 (CS)

Victoria Crowe, 'Into an Older Land'; (c) Royal Scottish Academy of Art & Architecture
Victoria Crowe’s ‘Into an Older Land’ (c) Royal Scottish Academy of Art & Architecture

SchubertWinterreise D.911

There are many compositions that are inspired by paintings: Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Rachmaninov’s The Isle of the Dead, Respighi’s Trittico Botticelliano and Liszt’s tone poem Hunnenschlacht spring immediately to mind.

Then, there are art works which have music as the source of their origin. Moritz von Schwind’s ‘A Symphony’ (1852) was, in the words of the painter, ‘based on a composition by Beethoven, the Fantasia in C for Piano, Orchestra and Choir’ [1808] and ‘should be imagined as the Beethoven wall of a music room.

Moritz von Schwind - 'A Symphony'
Moritz von Schwind – ‘A Symphony’

Schwind said that the individual zones of his painting, into which he wove a love story, correspond to the four movements of Beethoven’s composition. There is also Frederic Leighton’s ‘Lieder ohne Worte’ (exhibited 1861) which borrowed its title from Mendelssohn, and which attempts to convey sound, or music, through paint. Or, Piet Mondrian’s ‘Broadway Boogie Woogie’ (1942-43) the intersecting yellow lines and red and blue squares of blue and red of which create a stuttering rhythm which suggests the syncopated dynamism of jazz.

Piet Mondrian, '‘Broadway Boogie Woogie’ (1942-43)
Piet Mondrian, ‘‘Broadway Boogie Woogie’ (1942-43)

Interestingly, von Schwind was also inspired by Schubert: the painter’s ‘Abschied im Morgengrauen’ (Farewell at Dawn) of 1859, into which he painted a figure representative of the artist himself, is a response to the opening song of Winterreise (1827-8), ‘Fremd bin ich eingezogen’ (A stranger I came, a stranger I depart).

Moritz van Schwind: ‘Abschied im Morgengrauen’ (Farewell at Dawn), 1859
Moritz van Schwind: ‘Abschied im Morgengrauen’ (Farewell at Dawn), 1859

This preamble is by way of an introduction to Winterreise: A Parallel Journey: a performance at the Wigmore Hall of Schubert’s song-cycle by bass Matthew Rose and pianist Gary Matthewman ‘accompanied’ by flowing video projections by artist Victoria Crowe.

Crowe had previously provided some paintings of Scottish wintery worlds as imagery to accompany Wilhelm Müller’s poems in the CD-liner booklet for Rose and Matthewman’s 2012 recording of Winterreise for Stone Records, and this led to a performance of the cycle at the Fleming Gallery in London in January 2015, with the performers standing before Crowe’s large-scale tapestry, Large Tree Group. Discussions about the ‘idea of using varying images flowing throughout the whole song cycle’ followed, and now Rose and Crowe have collaborated to produce a ‘contemplative, extended response to the words and music’. (Crowe’s work formed an exhibition, Light on the Landscape at The Scottish Gallery in October 2016.)

But, Schubert’s and Müller’s Winterreise is monodrama. The poetic voice, as conveyed by the singer, is the centre and all in this song-cycle, while the piano seems sometimes to embody the wanderer’s unconscious, elsewhere to offer more literal depiction of the external world. Indeed, in the best traditions of Romantic pathetic fallacy, the outer – rustling branches, raging stream, murmuring fountains, ringing posthorn, barking dogs and rattling chains – is also inner: an aural landscape of a psychological journey.

Is anything further needed … merited? Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake made a video of the cycle, directed by David Alden, in 2007. More recently, Netia Jones and Bostridge have collaborated on a video staging of Hans Zender’s Winterreise, The Dark Mirror, in my review of which I noted that ‘Schubert’s Winterreise has inspired responses — musical, artistic, theatrical — of many shapes and forms. In March 1996, tenor Martyn Hill and pianist Andrew Ball performed the song-cycle within an installation conceived by Christian Boltanski and directed by Hans Peter Cloos at the Opéra Comique in Paris. Artist Mariele Neudecker, working with baritone Andrew Foster-Williams and pianist Christopher Gould in 2003, used Schubert’s songs as the basis for a compilation of 24 short films — each of which existed as both a live performance and gallery version — using locations along the 60th parallel north. In the same year, choreographer Trisha Brown populated Schubert’s cycle through a ballet in which baritone Simon Keenlyside both sang and danced.’

I do have misgivings about removing a work from its original context, however – though one might argue that if the work is going to be subject to addition, interaction and assimilation, then perhaps the more ‘removed’, the better! But, if I had any reservations about the supplementation of Schubert’s cycle with flowing images, then these were not immediately confirmed by the projection of Crowe’s work in the cupola of the Wigmore Hall. The ‘winter paintings’, drawn from 20 years of her work, provided an austere palette, translucent washes, sharply etched craquelure, twisted organic forms and transitory light which poetically combined the emblematic and enigmatic. The cool blues and pallid greys, deepening to a sonorous ultramarine or warming to a gentle ochre, created atmosphere and emotion which one might say served as an equivalent to music. And, the slow transformations of the fluid images represented an engaging attempt to reconcile the ‘fixed’ image with a sense of suspended stillness and the narrative of a journey.

However, after the first few songs a feeling of ‘sameness’ set in – and it wasn’t helped by Rose’s depiction of the wanderer as frozen by bitterness from the start: there was little sense of a psychological progression through, alternately, dark despair, sweet delusion, nascent hope and angry nihilism. Crowe professes that she was concerned not to ‘illustrate’ Müller’s poems but to draw on her recent work which has ‘dealt with images of memory, aspects of external reality and reflection (in all senses)’ and to create images which ‘referred in a poetic, symbolic, and metaphorical sense to the verbal content of the work’. And, yet, a ghostly woman’s face haunted the organic tapestry, surfacing from time to time like a Gothic palimpsest which set me in mind of Emily Brontë; and, in ‘Die Krähe’ (The crow) the black-winged shadow made its inevitable appearance, like a blatant portent of impending death. The ‘three suns’ of ‘Die Nebensonnen’ (Phantom suns) comprised a central moon, half-obscured by a slash of darkness, framed by two cameos, hanging over the snow-draped hills: at the point, where we should be drawn into the music’s psychological disorientation, I was distracted by motif and emblem.

Another problem with the performance was that, presumably to enhance the clarity of the projected video, the Wigmore Hall was unusually low-lit (heaven help those who wanted to follow the text, further displacing attention on the visual images). With the piano situated far stage-right and Rose almost lost in shadow, something of the expressive directness of the lied was lost. Indeed, during a discussion about the feasibility and longevity of art song, baritone Mark Stone remarked to me that intimate settings for lieder performances ‘instigate and require intense relationships between singer and audience – the singer may even feel that he or she is forming an individual relationship with each listener – and these must be sustained, not just through musical expression but also through eye contact’.   Peering from and at the gloomy platform, this could certainly not have been the case for Rose and his Wigmore Hall audience.

What of the musical performance, though? Well, I have to start by confessing that I prefer my Winterreise sung by a tenor. Though basses have offered interpretations, some successful, and most famously Martti Talvela and Kurt Moll, the low voice seems to me inherently less vulnerable, too sturdy, too ‘aged’, lacking the bright dynamism which pervades the start of the wanderer’s journey. Many will, of course, disagree. And, Rose certainly showed that he can temper and lighten his voice, and apply, in perfect partnership with Matthewman, a subtle rubato and expressive diminishment – as at the close of ‘Die Wetterfahne’ (The weather-vane); or when the wanderer found shelter in the charcoal-burner’s hut in ‘Rast’ (Rest); and, most beautifully in a wonderfully eerie ‘Irrlicht’ (Will-o’-the-wisp) which sank with an unalleviated solemnity and despondency at the close. Indeed, the depth of the bass voice was an asset in ‘Wasserflut’ (Flood), where the octave plummet in the vocal line conjured an intensity of feeling which burned even stronger when juxtaposed with the gentle eloquence of the piano accompaniment. And, in ‘Die Krähe’ and ‘Gefrorne Tränen’ (Frozen tears), the sombre sonority conveyed a self-consuming introspection.

But, the communicative power of phrase and text which is the essence of the lied was, to this listener at least, missing. Yes, certain lines and moments were expressively highlighted. An acceleration between the second and third stanzas of ‘Gute Nacht’ (Good night) led to an eruption of indignant fury, ‘Was soll ich länger weilen/ Daß man mich trieb’ hinaus?’ (Why should I wait any longer for them to drive me out?) There was a startling and mesmerising change of tone for the repeat of the final stanza of ‘Einsamkeit’ (Loneliness), shifting the mood alarmingly from solipsistic contemplation to angry frustration. A powerful conclusion to ‘Das Wirtshaus’ (The inn), accompanied by full, warm piano chords, conveyed a resoluteness and defiance – a most apt preface to the succeeding ‘Mut!’ (Courage!), but one undermined by the cool pallor of the visual image, and by the irony of Müller’s poetry: ‘Lustig in die Welt hinein/ Gegen Wind und Wetter!’ (Cheerfully out into the world against wind and weather!)

Moreover, many would surely praise Rose’s superb breath-control, and even and ample sound. But, for me the full, round capaciousness is too ‘operatic’ – it embodies strength and presence, when the wanderer is all ambiguity and ephemerality. Rose’s diction is perfectly serviceable – in that the text was clearly enunciated and the consonants were all present and correct – but the words somehow always sounded more ‘English’ than German.

While some songs adopted extremely slow tempi – ‘Einsamkeit’ and ‘Die Krähe’, for example – overall, I found the movement from song to song too swift. Perhaps Crowe’s visual articulation of a melding flow of metamorphosing patterns encouraged a musical segue between different moods; but, at times, both the wanderer and his listener need to draw breath, reflect, absorb, before resuming the journey.

One aspect of the performance that I found unwaveringly excellent was Gary Matthewman’s transparent, finely crafted accompaniment. Despite the lower tessitura, never once were the rumbling motifs ponderous or heavy, and the conversations between the eloquent bass line and the voice were deeply touching – as at the close of ‘Erstarrung’ (Numbness). The piano’s dry chords seemed to mock the calm lyricism of the left hand melody in ‘Auf dem Flusse’ (On the river); ‘Der Wegweiser’ raced fleetly.

The piano tone at the start of the final song, ‘Der Leiermann’, (The organ-grinder), possessed a cool fixity that suggested the lyrics of the song were etched in stone – sung almost from beyond the grave. However, Rose himself was defiant rather than despairing at the last; his words a challenge to the organ-grinder’s lament.

Claire Seymour

1 thought on “A Journey in Words, Music and Images: a ‘Parallel’ <i>Winterreise</i> at the Wigmore Hall”

  1. Point of accuracy, the fades between images were longer in the original video, however they were changed so that they related to a marked score that was triggered by the actual pace of the individual performance. Therefore the Pace of the transitions were influenced by the singer not vice versa . Agree however that a longer transition would have given pause for thought.
    Presumably you picked up on the fact that the recurring female head was the longed for love.
    I must also say that the audience reaction on the night and comments I heard were very supportive and positive.


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