Saturday, 14 June 2014

Bass nature: 'Winterreise'

While discovering more and more about opera - and as a result, falling in love with 'the voice' and what it can do - it's perhaps not surprising that I've also developed a mild addiction to classical song. The genre encompasses work in many shapes and sizes, but the type of song I'm talking about in this post is possibly the most well-known: 'lieder' - that is, songs setting German poetry to music, usually for voice and piano only.

Poetry? Just voice and piano? You might be tempted to think, then, that lieder (or song in general) is a kind of low-key alternative for when you're not feeling quite robust enough for an opera; when all you really fancy is a snack, not a four-course meal. Not a bit of it. The often exquisite combination of beauty and intensity found in great song can have as profound an effect on the emotions as any full-blown orchestral drama - and probably the most celebrated example of this is Schubert's 'Winterreise'.

Schubert was not by any means the first composer to tackle 'songwriting', but he is arguably the foremost. Leaving aside personal taste, there are probably two 'claims to fame' that give him this potentially definitive placing. To start with, he was incredibly prolific, with over 700 songs to his credit. The pianist Graham Johnson managed to record them all (with the help of some 60 singers) for Hyperion Records. It took over a decade - with the CDs being released as they went along - but the resulting 'complete' box set (one day... one day...) holds 40 discs and looks like you might need to keep it in your piano.

And secondly, he wrote two song cycles that are now regarded as immortal high watermarks of the genre: 'Die Schöne Müllerin' (literally the "Lovely Female Miller", I believe - bit odd in English - so usually given as "The Fair Miller-Maid", or similar) and 'Winterreise' ("Winter Journey"). He may even have invented the idea of a song-cycle itself, but the available intelligence seems a bit vague - 'Die Schöne Müllerin' is apparently the earliest example still in regularly-performed repertoire, but I suppose that could mean that Schubert's predecessors tried and failed to successfully create an extended sequence that lasted or worked so well. (Wikipedia mentions the earlier Beethoven work 'An die ferne Geliebte', or "To the Distant Beloved", where the 'narrative' is musical rather than textual, and while the songs are linked, they do not tell a story. So you can vote for Ludwig or Franz according to your personal preference! Phone lines close at....)

Both the cycles are based on series of linked narrative poems by Wilhelm Müller. The earlier work is a romantic tragedy - young man loses the affection of the miller's daughter to another, then apparently drowns himself in the brook (the final lullaby is actually in the voice of the water, soothing him to sleep). 'Winterreise', however, is rather more enigmatic. Again, the narrator loses his love to another - but we find this out in the first verse of the first song. What follows is a brilliantly-worked 'abstract' journey that, on one level, depicts our storyteller leaving town and the failed romance behind him. However, the natural phenomena he encounters - wind, snow, ice - are all made to reflect back on his deteriorating mental state, so that it's as much an inward voyage as an outer one. The final song, 'Der Leiermann' (meaning an organ-grinder or hurdy-gurdy player), has him musing whether to accompany the 'strange old man' - yes, the stranger could be Death, perhaps, but the circular drone of the hurdy-gurdy - chillingly reflected in the piano accompaniment - could also mean that the journey is in fact never-ending. Tempting to draw this conclusion, when the opening song is called 'Good Night' - as if we could drop in on the traveller anywhere in the cycle and listen through until we got back to where we came in.

Schubert was dying when setting 'Winterreise', and many have speculated about how much his knowledge of how ill he was must have found an expression in the melancholy, maturity and mystery of the cycle. I don't doubt it - but the layered interrogation of the narrator's mind is all there in the original poetry. Schubert's genius is to find exactly the right melody and accompaniment, 24 times over, to bring to life both the internal and external worlds of the traveller. I've added a series of YouTube videos here - for consistency, they are all from the same version, which is also rather interesting to look at: a specially-filmed 'arthouse' presentation from 1997 with Ian Bostridge (then looking positively adolescent), the superb tenor who somehow conveys fragility and edginess without losing any vocal power, with seemingly telepathic pianist Julius Drake. I've included a selection just to demonstrate how the piano's 'character' aligns with the song's subject.

The second song describes the wind on a weather-vane - and you can hear the staccato spin, stop and switch in the accompaniment.

Song 4 - 'Numbness' - is clearly a marvellous showcase for the singer, but the piano generates such agitated speed while seemingly trapped for much of the track on a jittery, insistent repeated bass figure, unable to move freely.

Song 8 - a 'look back' - has the narrator stumbling in his haste to leave town - and JD emphasises the panicked 'running' between IB's breathless phrases:

Finally, here is the meeting with the hurdy-gurdy man (listen for that circular, melancholy figure):

A great deal of classical song is available in versions for different voice ranges, so male and female soloists up and down the entire scale have the opportunity to make their mark on the canon. 'Winterreise', originally written for tenor, occupies a rightful place as a 'rite of passage' for many singers and there are a dizzying number of recordings available. There is a kind of 'grandfather' of renditions by the great baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau from 1962 - and there have also been some thrilling (and well-reviewed) versions in literally the last year or so by people you might have a fighting chance of hearing perform it live. Superstar tenor Jonas Kaufmann has made it his latest album, and given the sheer heft of his stage voice, it's fascinating to compare his 'caged tiger' with the 'I really might be about to fall apart' Bostridge approach. I also love the brilliant new recording by baritone Gerald Finley and the spectacular live CD by mezzo Alice Coote (on the Wigmore Hall label). Perhaps it's no coincidence that both of these latter releases feature Julius Drake on piano.... did my recent first experience of 'Winterreise' live. This concert was in Middle Temple Hall, organised by the Temple Music Foundation. Singing with JD this time was the great bass Sir John Tomlinson. I'd seen him in a Proms 'Parsifal' and Royal Opera House 'Wozzeck', so I knew what a charismatic chap he is. I was intrigued by what it would be like to see and hear him up close. (Middle Temple Hall has a shallow, wide auditorium layout, so you are fairly near the performance area provided you do manage to bag a seat somewhere near the centre.) I'd also noticed - in my ongoing hobby of surfing Amazon and trying to resist buying more versions of 'Winterreise' - that in general the number of bass recordings seems to lag behind the number of other registers, and JT in particular seems to have no recorded or even performance history with the work at all. (Please correct me if I'm wrong, someone.) So, while it seems odd for someone with a 50-year career to be singing anything for the first time, it crossed my mind that we might actually be witnessing something a little out of the ordinary.

And so it proved. The rumble of JT's booming voice (also reflected in the lower piano arrangement) felt physical - vibrations I could detect from my seat - in a way I would usually associate with some of the louder rock gigs I go to. This was the polar opposite of the unstable, neurotic Bostridge characterisation - a version laden with grit and determination, a wilful and visceral throwing off of the shackles to the old town and old love. Of course, JT is a great singing actor - so not only could we assume (if we wanted to) that he was merely taking on the persona of a younger man, but also his faraway looks and total absorption in the music made it easy to believe that the events of the tale could easily have happened in his youth and this was the same narrator years later, still on his inner/outer journey, still trapped in the cycle. Only difference now is the voice is deeper. It's appealing to imagine this immortal character living over and over again through all the different voices that have taken on his songs, drifting down (on the male side) through tenor, baritone then bass, as he ages. (It's also impossible to cast aside the notion that older soloists in the closing stages of their careers might bring a 'while I still can' element to 'Winterreise', and who knows what additional poignancy the closing songs in the sequence might carry for them?)

I would be lying if I didn't say the experience had its surreal moments. For this 'winter journey', we were all packed in a sweltering hall on what must've been one of the hottest nights of the year. During the most demanding songs, JT went the colour of beetroot, wiping sweat from his brow - and it is quite disconcerting to have a man of considerable years sing 'Mein herz!' ("my heart!") repeatedly while clutching his chest for emphasis. But he knew exactly what he was capable of - he didn't remove his jacket or take a sip of water throughout the whole 70 minute sequence. He seemed, in no time, to simply relax into it, open up that fathomlessly rich voice, and assume the character. Drake found exactly the right balance between background and ballast. Despite the pile of 'Winterreise' CDs forming an icy, forbidding tower near the hi-fi, I would love to hear the two of them record this.


  1. What a great blog post. Now I really wish I had been there to hear this - hope JT repeats at some point but in the meantime I think I may be on my own journey to investigate this song cycle further. I have Keenlyside coming up later in the year and there's also an intriguing prospect of tenor Daniel Behle with piano trio arrangement in April 2015. The journey continues...

    1. Thank you, Karen. I feel sure JT must be planning to do something further with it, but info seems scant. I can't wait to hear SK tackle it, too. Piano trio arrangement sounds very intriguing... Oh! Just found it, an April matinee at Wigmore Hall. Good grief - well, if the stars (and box office) align, I'm there. 8-)

  2. Great post Mr S. As an opera virgin (the closest I've probably come to experiencing the artform is via Jean-Jacques Beineix's sublime thriller "Diva"), I'm enjoying reading about your journey and learning curve as much as the actual performance itself.

    1. That's kind, Steve - thanks for the support, and so glad you enjoy the posts. (*adds 'Diva' to list...*)

  3. Splendid post, sir !

    I too am currently looking at my pile of Winterreises, if that is the plural, and the collective noun (a ward, perhaps ?). Schreier and Padmore for the tenors, Fischer-Dieskau for the baritones and Brigitte Fassbaender trailblazing for the mezzos (two it happens...). I could have had more ( indeed thought I had at least one other F-D...) with my buying fingers hovering over Bostridge and the highly regarded Goerne too, and if I had been in a shop offering the CD from the mighty Alice Coote then that might have been bagged. F-D, with Brendel, was my favourite in general though there were times when Peter Schreier's tenor seems better for the more neurotic songs. So yes, one can find oneself a bit obsessional about Winterreise.

    Having said that it is a few years since I have listened to any of them. It is work of such overpowering existential gloom that you have to take a psychic run at it. The fine weather and the W****d C*p has had me reaching for South American music for the summer sun rather for a winter journey. However with the British summer and this pack of new versions from terrific singers it may not be long before my mind will turn again to setting off on this particular journey again.

    1. Thanks for this, Eugene - both for the support and brilliant info. I must seek out the Fassbaender in particular, as I'd love to hear more versions by women. Recently the fantastic Adrianne Pieczonka tweeted that she was thinking of tackling it (or possibly already working on it) and that's a really exciting prospect. The Coote 'live at Wigmore' is just riveting - something a bit special about launching one's version of it out into the world as a live performance. Superb stuff.