Winterreise at Waikanae

SCHUBERT – Winterreise D.911

Keith Lewis (tenor)

Michael Houstoun (piano)

Waikanae Music Society

Memorial Hall,

Sunday 13th February 2011

The last five songs of this performance in Waikanae by Keith Lewis and Michael Houstoun of Schubert’s song-cycle Winterreise brought us right to the heart of this great work – that numbed, essential bleakness of spirit was tellingly conveyed by both singer and pianist, not with histrionics or gloom-laden darknesses of tone, but with a kind of other-worldliness symbolized by the traveller’s “passing-over” into the realm of the ghostly organ-grinder, a state of being completely removed from “this worlde’s joye”.

Such was the focus and concentration of singer and pianist that the performance even transcended intrusive rumblings from a nearby train, noises whose elongations did their best to spoil Im Dorfe (In the Village), shortly after the interval. But by the time Der Wegweiser (The Signpost) was reached, we listeners in the hall had ourselves gone into those “grey havens” where earthly considerations seemed no longer to matter. Lewis and Houstoun caught this particular song’s almost pre-ordained fatalism, every utterance and every note suggesting the individual’s progression from that bitterness of heart to a numbed resignation in the face of what must be.

From the start this wasn’t a reading of the cycle that sought to plumb the depths or wring out the emotions too early – Houstoun’s chordal introduction to the opening Gute Nacht (Good Night) moved at an easy, almost brisk pace, and Lewis’s singing, if strongly-declaimed in places, kept feelings on an even keel, though with sufficient tender contrast at the major-key change for the last verse’s opening, to make the moment of farewell sufficiently heart-rending.

For all that the emotions were never over-wrought in this performance, the cumulative effect of such an approach had a magical effect upon irruptions of light among the prevailing gloom, such as the sweet remembrances of happiness prompted by Der Lindenbaum (The Linden Tree). Houstoun’s introduction to the song rippled, but the echoes had little resonant warmth, in keeping with the simple, ballad-like treatment of the first verse – however, the interplay between singer and pianist throughout Verse Two, with its minor-key modulations and care-worn accompanying figurations, was most affecting, as was the recalling at the end by the singer of the leaves’ rustling, with the words “Du fändest Ruhe dort” (There you would find rest).

The following song, Wasserflut (Torrent), though in places underlining the singer’s unsteadiness on sustained notes, featured an even more heartfelt and theatrical realization, Houstoun capturing the “tolling bell” aspect to perfection, and Lewis coloring his voice exquisitely in places, nowhere more beautifully than when addressing the snow, at “Schnee, du weisst von meinem Sehnen” (Snow, you know my longing), then rising to a passionate declamation with the final “Da ist meiner Liebster Haus” (There will be my beloved’s house).

Though there were too many other instances in this performance of these kinds of interpretative insights to do justice to, here, what delighted me were the unexpected moments of frisson – such as in the deceptively straightforward-sounding Die Post, which usually trips along almost vacuously, as if the composer felt the need to lighten the prevailing gloom of the journey at this point. Lewis and Houstoun, by dint of their awareness of possibilities for contrasts of colour and rhythmic impulse, made the “scene” into a miniature tone-poem, setting the traveller’s immediate exhilaration of encountering the sound of the posthorn against a more ruminative and inward world of past remembrance, beautifully pointed for maximum effect. And if the transcendent nature of the music over the last five songs cast, as here, a mesmeric spell over both musical and metaphorical elements, there were sufficient  moments of breath-catching beauty and arresting power throughout for the performance to constantly lead the ear of the listener onwards, giving a palpable sense of Schubert’s and his poet Müller’s visionary journey.

All credit to the Waikanae Music Society for organizing such a splendid concert. A well-appointed printed programme, including texts and translations of the songs, added to our pleasure, even if it meant that the “rustle of page-turning” in places was more than palpable – though sensibly, none of the texts were printed in a way that caused a mid-music irruption – such things, albeit very briefly, were left to the Railways!

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