Schubert’s “Winterreise” a truly unforgettable journey at St.Mark’s, Woburn for HVCM

Hutt Valley Chamber Music presents:
SCHUBERT – Winterreise  (Winter Journey) D.911

Will King (baritone)
Nicholas Kovacev (piano)

St.Mark’s Church, Woburn, Lower Hutt

Friday 2nd July 2021

I was brought up to believe that Franz Schubert was one of music’s most tragic figures, one whose circumstances were marked by privation, neglect and suffering – his was the archetypal Romantic scenario, fuelled by conjecture and fantasy, and bolstered up with a certain emphasis on the “tragic” aspects of his numerous works. Consequently, his song-cycle “Winterreise” came to be regarded as the ultimate nihilistic will and testament of the suffering and misunderstood creative artist, an outpouring of despair and disillusionment fit to be compared with the visionary paintings of the last years of Vincent Van Gogh.

Though such a made-to-order recipe supporting this idea of incomprehensible genius spurned was taken up as proof of greatness and institutionalised as such over many years, the truth of the matter serves not to diminish Schubert’s creative stature, but to actually enhance it, and bring it closer in spirit and intent to life as we ordinary mortals understand it. Schubert was certainly known and recognised as a creative artist in Vienna during his lifetime (a letter apparently addressed to “Franz Schubert, famous composer in Vienna” has been documented as reaching him from Germany!).

He was for a long time considered Beethoven’s inferior – his symphonies and piano sonatas were unfavourably compared with those of the older composer, and even the stellar qualities of the songs seemed to reinforce the attitude that he was little more than a “miniaturist”. The piano sonatas particularly suffered from neglect – Sergei Rachmaninov was, in the 1920s, amazed to learn that Schubert had written any at all! Today we know differently – and we are able to “place” more significantly in the scheme of things the incredible emotional range of Schubert’s music, and its ambiguity of expression.  As with Beethoven, one is left with a “great divide” between works of geniality and great voyages upon a sea of troubles – the coexistence of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony and the Op.132 String Quartet, for example, can be equated in Schubert’s oeuvre with that of the “Trout” Quintet and, say, the String Quintet, or, again, with this great song-cycle Winterreise.

Schubert’s early death, as a result of syphilis and its horrific treatment, has also “coloured” his achievement as a composer (Franz Grillparzer’s much-quoted epitaph, “The art of music here entombed a rich possession, but even fairer hopes” encouraged the “tragic figure” image), one to which the subject of Winterreise has also contributed. Interestingly, Schubert had seen only half of the twenty-four poems by Wilhelm Müller when he began composing the cycle in 1827, telling his friend Joseph von Spaum when emerging from a period of self-imposed isolation that he had  written ”some terrifying songs”, and sang and played for his circle of friends the whole of the first book. Spaum recalled the disturbance created by the songs’ “black mood” as well as the composer’s Beethoven-like response to his friends’ bewilderment that they would eventually “hear and understand them”. The second group of songs were completed later that year; and in the time left to him afterwards Schubert produced some of his greatest works, including the String Quintet, the E-flat Piano Trio, the last three Piano Sonatas, and the remaining songs collected and published after his death as Schwanengesang.

Wilhelm Müller was, of course the poet whose verses Schubert had already set in his earlier song-cycle of 1823, Die schöne Müllerin, a group of poems which pursue a definite narrative and culminate with the hero’s death, Schubert’s music transforming the somewhat stock-in-trade sentiments of the German Romantic literary tradition into sound-vignettes of infinitely suggestive depths of emotional insight, culminating in the extraordinary Des Baches Wiegenlied (“The Brook’s Lullaby”), where the brook consoles the lifeless form of the hero beneath its waters with words of rest and peace. Here, in Winterreise, by contrast, there is no rest, no peace, merely loneliness and isolation, loss and bitterness for the  traveller. One of the main differences between the cycles is in the piano part, in the earlier cycle readily colourful, physical, descriptive and engaging, while in the latter disconcerting in its austerity (I found the comments reproduced in tonight’s programme attributed to Benjamin Britten regarding the piano part of Winterreise most illuminating, stressing the piano’s conjuring up of mood and detail with the use of so few notes).

I’d heard only one live Winterreise performance previous to this present one  from Will King and Nicholas Kovacev at St.Mark’s Church in Woburn, Lower Hutt – this was a sobering ten years previously, from tenor Keith Lewis and pianist Michael Houstoun, at Waikanae, a reading that was especially notable for its progress towards a transcendence that “caught” the music in a mesmeric spell over the last five songs of the cycle, the numbed, essential bleakness of spirit conveyed with a feeling of “other-worldliness” underlined at the end by the traveller’s “passing over” into the realm of the ghostly hurdy-gurdy man, a place where earthly considerations seemed no longer to matter. Lewis and Houstoun seemed to me able to balance the sense of a palpable journey made by the lovelorn traveller with the equally pressing idea of there being no resolution of the spirit’s predicament to hope for, the bleakness of such an outlook in line with Schubert’s reported words describing his “terrifying songs”.

After what I thought was a slightly tentative beginning to Gute Nacht (Goodnight) from pianist Nicholas Kovacev, the playing thereupon seemed hand-in-glove with Will King’s beautifully “sounded” opening phrase – there was intensity of focus from both musicians, with the singer able to “illume from within” a word or phrase whose expression coloured the whole line, whether in anticipation or following. The third verse’s emphasis at Was soll ich langer weilen  (Why should I stay longer) was beautifully countered by the fourth’s sweetness at its major-key beginning, and further thrown into relief by the darkened minor-key final line. Next, the agitated opening of Die Wetterfahne (The Weather-vane) brought forth plenty of give and take of vocal intensities, concluding with almost desperate anger, which took on different, more desolate forms in the two songs leading up to Der Lindenbaum (The Lime Tree), dark and melancholy for Gefrorene Tränen  (Frozen Tears), and unsettled and troubled during Erstarrung (Turned to Ice), King managing to convey distress while phrasing with such elegance and variety.

Der Lindenbaum is, I think, the cycle’s first great in-transit “signpost”, given here with tender loveliness from both singer and pianist, the voice opening and radiating as the line rises and reaches the light at the top. King doesn’t make a “meal” of the minor key-change, darkening his tone, and suggesting the heartbreak without coarsening his delivery, singer and pianist eloquently making the beauty of the music’s return to an equanimity of sorts the true moment of catharsis. All the more bleak then the following song Wasserflut (Flood), here, with its Denis Glover-like bird call (a more desolate “Quardle Oodle Ardle Wardle Doodle”) reiteration of the opening figuration. From soft beginnings, King arched the line beautifully upwards each time, varying the intensities of its climax, all the while haunted by the repeated piano motif. The following Auf dem Flusse (On the River) energised this bleakness with a stepwise tread, King and Kovacev making the most of its fearful progress, surfaces crusted with still ice, yet surging fearfully beneath.

Rūckblick (Looking back) was here a classic “longing to return” moment, King and Kovacev conveying the torn, distraught emotions of one who longed to escape while wishing to go back to a happier time, with “zwei Mädchenaugen glühten” (a girl’s two eyes sparkling). The contrast with the ghostly, fatalistic Irrlicht (Will-o’the-Wisp) – lovely breath-control from the singer at the song’s end – and the ritualistic Rast (Rest), with its dramatic crescendi moving from physical stillness to inner turmoil, brought the wanderer to exhausted sleep and to dreams (Fruhlingstraume – Dream of Spring), King and Kovacev here charting a course between escapist delight and bitter reality with strongly-characterised focus. The disconsolate trudge of the ensuing Einsamkeit (Loneliness) turned gradually to desperation, Kovacev’s piano agitated and King’s tones dramatic and laden, the voice searching for some relief from the gloom. With the cycle’s second great “signpost” – the song Die Post (The Post) – the gloom momentarily lifted, King’s Wanderer running the gamut of emotion from expectation to disillusionment as the song tripped bitterly and ironically onwards.

Der greise Kopf (The grey head) which followed caught the desolation of the singer’s feelings of age and mortality though still a young man, conveyed by emptied-out vocal tones most effectively and dramatically. And both the crow (Die Krähe) and the falling leaves of Letzte Hoffnung (Last Hope) brought a sense of the traveller’s abandonment by nature itself, the singer desperately beseeching the crow to remain faithful, and then despairing as the last leaf fell blithely from a tree to the ground, King’s long-breathed legato lines a dying farewell to hope. With Im Dorfe (In the Village) Kovacev’s piano phrases smugly delineated the sleeping villagers’ dreams as King’s bitter tones renounced their world before taking his leave, and, with the added weight of the piano’s vigorous gesturings confronting the winter (Der sturmische Morgen), with near-manic phrases and exclamations, for me the third of the cycle’s “signposts” delineating a change or intensification of direction.

A sudden contrast of mood with Tauschung (Deception) suggested the onset of delirium as the traveller pursued a “dancing light” to which he confessed abandonment despite its possible “trickery” – King’s voice brought out vagaries of hope and disillusionment, which the following song, Der Wegweiser (The Signpost) gently but sombrely corrected, taking him further into the darkness of forsakenness. I thought King and Kovacev did so well with the next song, Das Wirthaus (The Inn), the almost ritualistic splendour and sacramental peace of the graveyard’s surroundings richly conveyed by the singing and playing, here, the tones then taking on a feeling of hollow, empty grandeur as the traveller realised that there was nowhere for him to rest.

What, then, of the triumverate of deception, delirium and disillusionment embodied by the final three songs? King and Kovacev generated a desperate kind of  foolhardiness, a delusional heroism with the first of the three, Mut (Courage), the voice almost manic in its upward thrusts, an amalgam of defiance and desperation,  before the trance-like Die Nebensonnen (The Mock Suns) gripped the singer with its hymnal focus and vision, the voice expressing wonderment at first and then disbelief and sadness, the piano resonating with the singer’s feelings as the tones died away. All that remained was Der Leiermann (The hurdy-gurdy man), the encounter with the old street musician, the piano articulating the haunting repeated refrain, the singer’s tones bleached of emotion and feeling, the heartbreakingly naïve concluding plea to the old man to be his companion made so focused and resonant as to linger on in the silence that followed, until we in the audience were allowed by the musicians to break the spell and show our (by then) gobsmacked appreciation of what we had just heard and experienced! Very great credit to these two on the occasion of a stunning achievement!

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