Two years ago I asked a young college student, a very talented tenor from Germany, if he would like to perform an entire concert of Schubert. When I proposed the Winterreise song cycle, he laughed, saying his teacher would never let him perform the work until he was at least 40 years old. This story may suggest the seriousness of the work, regardless of the fact that Schubert composed it at an astonishingly mature 29. Commentators typically date Schubert's "late style" from when he was about twenty-six. The cycle comprises 24 songs with texts from Schubert's contemporary and compatriot Wilhelm Müller — who, like Schubert; died young, not yet 33.
The singer/narrator is a typical 19th-century romantic figure: a wandering poet, lonely, depressed and longing for his beloved, who now loves another. From the confident meter of the first song, "Gute Nacht," to the fragmented final song, in which the singer has a terrifying encounter with a lost beggar, a hurdy-gurdy man, Schubert creates a bleak, snow-ridden world in which the musicians must tread carefully so as not to lose their tenuous grip on reality.
It is hard for me to listen to these songs without remembering the powerful voice and dramatic insights of the great baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Mark Padmore's tenor initially sounds somewhat odd, as we are more accustomed to baritone and bass voices in this music. But ultimately he makes a fairly convincing protagonist. For this listener Padmore and pianist Paul Lewis are lackluster and overly somber throughout, although they articulate well the musical subtleties of these delicate compositions. This is among the slowest of any recording I know.
Paul Lewis's tone suits Schubert perfectly, and he often takes the interpretive lead (not unusual in Schubert lieder, where the accompanist is typically an equal partner). I wish Padmore had played better off Lewis's forward-moving introductions and pushed the work out of the stolid emotional shell that characterizes this recording. For example, "Der Stürmische Morgen" is the first tune that Padmore sings in full voice, and the first tune to break out of the pervasive pianissimo dynamic. I wish I hadn't had to wait one whole hour to hear this side of the performers. I find the later songs more rewarding here. But I find Thomas Quasthoff's 1998 recording far more satisfying. Other classic recordings include bass Hans Hotter with Gerald Moore, the most famous vocal accompanist of all time, or any of Fischer-Dieskau's versions. Listen to a short two-minute YouTube clip of the great Sergei Rachmaninov performing the first song of Schuberts earlier song cycle Die Schone Mullerin, and hear how the great ears of Rachmaninov heard Schubert move forward. Then listen again to Padmore and Lewis, and ask yourself if honestly, you are not bored. Sure, this is difficult company to compete with, but isn't that the purpose of recording yet another Winter's Journey?
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