All the best: Winterreise

Schubert virtually invented the song-cycle as an art form. With Winterreise he also perfected it. He had a precedent in Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte, but that lasts a mere 15 minutes and has nothing like the narrative span or psychological scope of Winterreise, which lasts an hour and a quarter. Schubert’s “winter’s journey” – a setting of 23 poems by Wilhelm Müller about life, love, solitude and death – is a journey of the emotions. It tells of a young man, unrequited in love, who seeks to drown his sorrows in a love of nature. The winter setting – nature at its harshest – isolates the forlorn lover from the world, makes him turn his back on reality and strands him on a precipice between madness and grief. He becomes old before his time. Whether he dies is unclear. What is beyond doubt is that Schubert sweeps us to the limits of our existence on earth and, perhaps, beyond.

It is hardly surprising so many singers should want to conquer this Everest of art-song repertoire: more than 100 versions are available on CD and DVD, covering extremes of simplicity and sophistication, emotional economy and dramatic expressionism. With no fewer than eight commercial recordings and several more on live or pirate versions, German lyric baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (1925-2012) tops the lot. He almost single-handedly inspired the popularisation of Lieder (German art-songs) in the second half of the 20th century, a period that coincided with the proliferation of recordings and recording technology.

What distinguished Fischer-Dieskau’s readings was the way he made words as important as music: he coloured them without resorting to over-dramatisation. His first recorded Winterreise(1952) reveals a singer whose artistic personality is still being formed. By the late 1970s and 1980s, when he made recordings with Alfred Brendel and Daniel Barenboim, he was well past his peak. As he grew older and more celebrated, he developed mannerisms and lost his vocal colour. His 1992 performance with Murray Perahia finds him in his dotage, almost a parody of himself.

In his prime he made three studio recordings with Gerald Moore (1955, 1962 and 1971) and one with Jörg Demus (1968), and it’s the second of the Moore collaborations, taped when Fischer-Dieskau was 38, that captures the essence of his art. For anyone who did not witness him “live”, the film of his 1979 Berlin performance with Brendel is also valuable for the way it shows him communicating every ounce of emotion through the voice. The DVD includes a 56-minute sequence of unscripted rehearsal.

Such was Fischer-Dieskau’s pre-eminence that several contemporaries were unjustly overshadowed, Gérard Souzay and Hermann Prey among them. The latter’s open-hearted version is worth hearing. Fischer-Dieskau’s disciples also suffered. Neither Olaf Bär (1989) nor Andreas Schmidt (1992) finds as many nuances, though Bär, captured at the start of his career, brings a youthful freshness, and I have a special affection for Wolfgang Holzmair (1996), whose deceptively light, poetic touch sets him apart.

Of the current generation of baritones, Christian Gerhaher exemplifies the new, introverted approach, more melancholic than Fischer-Dieskau and warmer in timbre. Matthias Goerne’s first recording, with Graham Johnson, impresses more than his more mannered live performance with Brendel. Thomas Quasthoff, a bass, takes a less romantic approach and generates greater sonority: the DVD of his 2005 live rendition with Barenboim (including superb rehearsal clips) is to be preferred to his 1998 CD with Charles Spencer.

What the Fischer-Dieskau phenomenon tended to obscure was that the keys in which Schubert wrote Winterreise are for tenor voice, which has a knack of emphasising the poet’s lovesick personality. In his beautifully nuanced 1945 recording Peter Anders showcases the classic German tenor sound, portraying the protagonist as dreamer, while Peter Schreier recorded the cycle several times – notably in a live 1985 performance with Sviatoslav Richter that communicates a quasi-expressionist flavour. Long a favourite of mine, it seems worlds away from the mild-mannered Werner Güra, today’s leading tenor exponent.

And what of non-Germans? In 1963 Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten established a useful precedent, illuminating the cycle in a way that defies comparison with others. They also demonstrated far greater “feeling” for Schubert and Müller than the latest generation of British interpreters. The exception here is Alice Coote, who proves (like her distinguished German predecessor Brigitte Fassbaender) that gender is immaterial when it comes to dramatising the poet’s journey from within.

This is part of an occasional series on building a library of classical music.

For more ‘All the Best’ round-ups from Andrew Clark:


La traviata

Handel’s Messiah

Mahler symphonies


Sergiu Celibidache

Wagner’s Ring

Carlos Kleiber

Goldberg Variations

Ravel’s piano music

Claudio Abbado

Janácek’s operas

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