Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 13 / 29 March 2018

Revealing 'Winterreise'


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The question "Was Schubert gay?" must remain unanswered for now, for lack of clear evidence. Yet in our lifetimes, our collective understanding of the composer has undergone a sea change. Our resistance to see and hear the often-forbidding beauty of Schubert has at last given way to our welcoming him into the company of the great composers and true visionaries.

More than any other of his chosen media, it is his songs, all 600-plus of them, that have brought us around to what he meant. We have been like his friends, for whom he played and sang for the first time his song cycle "Winterreise" in what we call a salon, to pretty it up from what was more like a saloon, in the sense of a place where people gather in friendship. His friends were uncomprehending and alarmed. What he told them – that in time we would come to love them the most of his songs, as he did – has come true, and perhaps more so over the last decade than in any time since their disturbing premiere.

No one has done more to reveal "Winterreise" to us than tenor Ian Bostridge. His book "Schubert's Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession" has opened eyes and ears. It is as essential for the lay listener as for any purveyor of the songs. Bostridge's commercial recordings of the cycle pre-date his book, and fine as they are, they yield to his subsequent live performances (some of them staged), which have realized in sound the bittersweet understandings of his book.

To hear Bostridge's Schubert at the emotional pitch with which he sings it today, we now have his 2014 Wigmore Hall recital, just released on the house's "Live" label. He's working with his trustiest sidekick, the pianist Julius Drake, and what they offer the listener is nothing short of song as an extreme sport. The programming shows Bostridge's great care, such that 23 songs, all of them about some aspect of longing, illuminate each other. It's the onstage recital at its most challenging, and it needs to be heard whole and in order.

One song can stand for the group. Throughout his career, Bostridge has grappled with the strange, volatile, sometimes operatically dramatic song "Der zurnenden Diana," a Schubert rarity. Bostridge the dramatic shape-shifter gets so far inside the mysterious speaker – an incarnation of the goddess in the most human of guises – that you forget this is art.

The remarkable Austrian baritone Florian Boesch has just released a "Winterreise" that I've come to think of as Bostridge's. It's not that Bostridge's book prescribes one and only correct "Winterreise," or even that Boesch is following the tenor's lead. He has, however, taken up the invitation to go to the core of the piece.

Without "identifying" the anonymous narrator of the Wilhelm Muller poems, Bostridge invites the reader to imagine a young man who has been, perhaps, not rejected by his love interest, as has been the book on "Winterreise" forever, but rather, ejected from the home where they shared a forbidden love.

Boesch gives us just such a character. His singing is unlike any other "Winterreise" on disc. The new disc barely bothers about the singing, avoiding the sensationalism that has become modish in present-day renditions of this musical "descent into madness." Boesch's starts there. With uncommon subtlety he suggests that the mental instability of the singer – certainly the appearance of something we'd now probably call bipolar – is germane to his having been thrown out of the house by the girl's mother. From Boesch's telling, there's no reason to think that the extremes might have been something her daughter would have been willing to tolerate from this passionate guy.

Boesch's poet is newly alarmed every time he realizes that, in the most concrete sense, he's out in the cold. More than in any other interpretation of the cycle I know, the verbal imagery, the strange repetitions – sometimes of a whole strophe, sometimes a few lines, occasionally only a word or phrase – the psychological lability expressed in music, make sense, add up and strike home. Boesch captures the internal illogic of it all. The poet's illusions, the at-death's-door chill hallucinations, are there for us, the voyeurs, to perceive. It's a journey not every listener will want to take, and this time there's no witnessing it from the sidelines.

It would not be possible without the most engaged of pianists. The more I listened, the more I imagined Boesch and Roger Vignoles, in the studio, working "off book," watching one another, Vignoles the "silent" partner to whom the boy mumbles and howls, who walks along with him, breathes with him, and regularly finishes the thoughts too spectral for words to bear.

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