Engrossing Wigmore Hall Winterreise from Simon Keenlyside and Malcolm Martineau

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert: Sir Simon Keenlyside (baritone), Malcolm Martineau (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 8.5.2023. (MB)

Sir Simon Keenlyside accompanied Malcolm Martineau at Wigmore Hall

Schubert – Winterreise, D 911

More seasonal than one might expect for early May, Winterreise made for an absorbing close to Wigmore Hall’s Coronation weekend (the eve of the anniversary of the Schuman Declaration). Simon Keenlyside and Malcolm Martineau were always likely to prove a box-office draw, and so it turned out to be. As for earlier concerts I attended, a large audience made its enthusiasm clear. The British ‘government’ may continue to spurn the arts as much as it does our common European culture; halls, artists, and audiences know and deserve better.

If it always takes me time to get used to the sound (and pitch) of a baritone in music written for a tenor, that is my problem. Keenlyside’s experience as a guide doubtless underpinned all he did, but one never had the sense he was repeating himself. This was quite an acted performance: not in the sense of plot, but gesture, expression, pacing across the stage, and so on. It makes no sense, at least to me, to be dogmatic about such things; what works works, and this did, a glance or a stare as telling as an accent or a slur. Martineau’s dependability as a collaborative pianist needs no mention from me. His was a quietly – from time to time, rather less quietly – supportive performance, not the sort of Winterreise one hears from a star solo pianist, but one that both responded to and, occasionally, kept in line Keenlyside’s vision. Much was on the swift side; certainly the opening ‘Gute Nacht’ was. And it was largely, though not entirely, continuous too. This may be off the mark, but I felt Keenlyside’s conception and expression of dramatic trajectory was inspired or at least informed by his experience on stage in opera. If it would be a crude exaggeration to dub this a Wozzeck’s Winterreise, it was difficult – why would one try? – not to find and, in this case, to see as well as hear, parallels and connections.

That opening song, in many ways quite conventionally lyrical, suggested the protagonist’s fate had yet to be sealed, that possibilities remained. At the same time, the final stanza’s turn to the major, only to be cruelly denied at the end, set up a dualism that would progressively be eroded as the journey proceeded. An angry, even hectoring ‘Die Wetterfahne’ made that clear. Focus, or our reception of it, was split, though always within a greater whole. Keenlyside’s controlled delirium in ‘Erstarrung’ was perfectly judged, the closing line ‘Fliesst auch ihr Bild dahin’, had him reach out both in voice and gesture for the image that would melt, should his heart ever thaw. Hallucinatory questioning in ‘Wasserflut’, born of naïveté rather than cynicism, spilled over into ‘Auf dem Flusse’, set against a spareness of piano writing and performance that brought the drama into relief, erupting in a ‘Rückblick’ whose fury threatened to veer out of control, yet never quite did. If ‘Irrlicht’ summed up the Janus-faced impression so far, by turn fresh and damaged, ‘Frühlingstraum’ extended that further to major-minor-uneasy synthesis.

‘Die Post’ emerged as a mini-drama of its own from a fine singing-actor, the piano speaking as if chorus commentator or even voice of phenomenon against noumenon. The greying of Keenlyside’s voice on referring to the grave in ‘Der greise Kopf’ was an unmistakeable indicator of where we were heading even before the dreadful scene with the crow (‘Die Krähe’). As the piano depicted its circling, the voice told of something more inward, again noumenal. Through the resignation of illusory returns in ‘Im Dorfe’, ‘Das Wirtshaus’, and finally ‘Die Nebensonnen’, it was clear the die had been cast. ‘Täuschung’ embraced that path, solemnised almost liturgically in a moving, well-nigh Bachian account of ‘Der Wegweiser’ and its sorrow. A Papageno destroyed by experience, yet dignified by it, met the organ-grinder in the final song. All the while, the organ-piano played on, oblivious — or was he?

Mark Berry

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