Is Winterreise a never-ending journey of the soul, or simply a state of mind, static and circular? It depends on the interpreter. Most performances suggest some form of dramatic trajectory, but if you read the words and analyse the music, the implication is that, from beginning to end, nothing changes. It’s this anti-cumulative aspect of Schubert’s song-cycle that Austrian baritone Markus Werba and British pianist Gary Matthewman conveyed on Tuesday. If it denied us a wrenching sense of finality and emotional desolation, it did so without traducing the essence of this supremely self-absorbed work.
Werba, who recently turned 40, has hitherto made his biggest impact in opera, notably as Papageno and Beckmesser. But Winterreise revealed a confident, natural presence on the recital platform, as well as a flawless technique and a voice of attractive colouring – despite its tendency to spread at the top under pressure. What came across most strongly in Tuesday’s performance was Werba’s economy of expression and lack of affectation, bringing to the fore the essential simplicity of Schubert’s gestures while generating long, fluent paragraphs of musical poetry.
This lonely lover sounded not so much introverted and tragic, as bluff and delusional. The burning tears of “Wasserflut” were eloquently realised, the emotional torrents of “Auf dem Flusse” intelligently characterised. “Der Lindenbaum” had a wonderful stillness. But the absence of extremes exacted a price: towards the end the songs were beginning to sound uncomfortably similar, as if Winterreise was little more than a set of variations on a recurring theme. While “Der Wegweiser” and “Der Leiermann” steered well clear of expressionism, Werba offered no compensating shafts of introspection. This “winter’s journey” was too easily picked up and put down.
Where it really did steal the attention was in Matthewman’s keyboard accompaniments, which came across like a musical cardiograph, tracing the fluctuations of mood and feeling with pinpoint accuracy. The prelude and postlude to each song were invariably scene-stealers. Matthewman is a name new to me, but if this recital is any gauge of his potential, I have a feeling we are going to hear a lot more of him.