Since around this time last year I’ve been pondering on whether to look further into a work of classical music: Winterreise, a song cycle composed by Franz Schubert. I first heard extracts from it on the R3 Breakfast programme Specialist Classical Chart last January, continuing into February and perhaps even beyond. I say ‘classical music’ but don’t think big orchestras: Winterreise is actually written for and performed by voice and accompanying piano only. I’ve since discovered the 24 Lieder thaty make up the work were originally poems written by Wilhelm Mueller (1794-1827) and set to song by Franz Schubert a year after Mueller’s death, and tragically, during the year of Schubert’s very own death. The ‘journey’ is the somewhat tortured first person account of a forlorn lover, rebuked by his sweetheart, forced out of town and into the harsh winter landscape. The cycle describes his feelings, encounters and ultimate ‘point of arrival’ in a typically romantic style. All in German of course.
The whole work is a game of two halves: the 24 poems which make up Wanderlieder von Wilhelm Müller. Die Winterreise were published in two separate occasions and in two separate publications. Similarly Schubert also composed the whole piece in two successive winters, discovering the second set after already finishing the score for the first. He corrected the score for the second part on his death bed.
It’s not an easy work to approach yet I was determined to find a way into it, encouraged not least my Ian Bostridge’s recent fascinating Radio 4 programme on the work. The English tenor has performed, recorded, acted, filmed and now written a book about Winterreise, so he seems qualified enough to know all about it. Needless to say, recorded perfomances are plentiful and leaves one with some confusion about which would be ‘the best’ to get for a relative beginner. In the end I plumped for the 2014 recording by Kaufmann and Deutsch (pic. left), the one I’d been hearing intermittently on the Radio 3 chart, as it was the one I’d sort of got used to. Naturally, minutes after finalising my digital download I came across an enticing re-edition of a recording of Winterreise by Ian Bostridge, with pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, together with two other works by Schubert as well as a DVD of Bostridge’s dramatised performance of ‘Reise (as I have affectionately come to call it), with video extras. Available at a relatively low price I had to go for that too.
I’m no expert in either music or singing but there are notable differences between the two. I’ve been enjoying both versions though over the past couple of weeks, especially on cold but crisp winter mornings during my daily commute, imagining our poor lonesome ‘traveller’ making his way through the frost and snow, lamenting the refusal by his loved one as he sets off into the cold dark winter night:
Ich kann zu meiner Reisen
Nicht wählen mit der Zeit,
Muß selbst den Weg mir weisen
In dieser Dunkelheit.
Es zieht ein Mondenschatten
Als mein Gefährte mit,
Und auf den weißen Matten
Such’ ich des Wildes Tritt.
For a much more comprehensive and musically-orienatated account of Winterreise, see the Beyond the Notes blog written by Erica Ann Sipes, Winterreise label.
Ian Bostridge’s new book: Schubert’s Winter Journey, Anatomy of an Obsession, is published by Faber & Faber.