Schubert's Winterreise

Written by Anne E. Johnson

When Franz Schubert first played his song cycle Winterreise (Winter Journey) for a few friends in 1828, they were amazed by how dark and grim it was, with most of the songs in minor keys. The text was a set of introspective poems by Wilhelm Müller imagining someone returning to a place where he had fallen in love and had his heart broken long ago. Fortunately, musicians and audiences have come to love the cold beauty and deep sadness of this work, as is obvious from the many new recordings of it released just in the past year.

The most satisfying of the recent recordings is the Harmonia Mundi pairing of tenor Mark Padmore and keyboardist Kristian Bezuidenhout. I say “keyboardist” even though Bezuidenhout is playing modern piano on this album because his background as an early music specialist on harpsichord and fortepiano informs his playing here.

For example, on “Gefrorne Tränen,” Bezuidenhout’s detached notes (which he manages even while pressing the sustain pedal!) perfectly replicate the distinct sounds the title’s “Frozen Tears” might make as they plop into the snow from the jilted lover’s cheek. By 1828, the modern piano was spreading in Europe, thanks to Parisian developments in the instrument. Still, fortepianos remained more common at the time, and historically informed performance tends to favor fortepiano for these salon-style works by Schubert. Bezuidenhout doubtless has this in mind even as he tickles his Steinway.

No tracks from this album are available on YouTube, but you can hear the complete recording on Spotify:

Padmore gives an understated performance. In these days when an intensely emotional interpretation of this cycle is coming into vogue (see mention of Ian Bostridge below), there’s a good argument for introspection in these poems that are really just internal monologues of a guy wandering around on a winter’s day. That said, Padmore can conjure up some fire when the text demands it, as he does in “Der stürmische Morgen” (The Stormy Morning).

Another top-notch Winterreise to come out lately is by baritone Florian Boesch and pianist Roger Vignoles on the Hypérion label. Sorry to say, there is no free (legal) way to share any tracks here; if you’re an Apple Music subscriber, you’re in luck. All I can offer is this “mini-teaser” on YouTube:


Even that little taste shows the delicate, intricate phrasing of both singer and pianist. Boesch has remarkable control of his sound at very low volume, a skill that serves him well in these introspective pieces. “Frühlingstraum” (Spring Dream) is so beautiful that it’s almost painful, and hearing this recording reminded me all over again why Schubert is one of the greatest melodists who ever lived.

The internet age has changed the whole concept of making and releasing a recording. Yes, there are still record companies and professional studios and industry contracts. But there are also unaffiliated musicians with a dream, some recording equipment, and a little tech and social media know-how, able to release their own recordings under their own steam. Schubert’s Winterreise recently received such treatment via YouTube.

Tenor Robert Petillo and pianist Todd Fickley recorded the song cycle in a performance at the Eliot Society in College Park, MD. Considering how live the hall’s acoustics are, they managed to make a decent sound recording. Petillo has an agile and pleasing voice, and Fickley provides strong rhythmic support.

What makes this recording special is the way it was released. The entire cycle was put on YouTube, each song with its own video featuring a still image, a watercolor winter scene by artist Betsy Marsch. It’s suitably meditative to stare at her artwork as you listen, and the English subtitles are a helpful touch. Here’s the opening song, “Gute Nacht” (Good Night):


Is it one of the great Winterreise recordings of all time? No, but it’s a solid performance, and I admire the musical democracy – the evened-out playing field, if you like – its release represents.

Of course, people sing Winterreise in concert all the time. The live version that has received the most attention in recent seasons is The Dark Mirror: Zender’s Winterreise. This experimental theater piece is a re-composition (my stomach knots up when I write that word) of Schubert’s song cycle, with the piano part reconstituted for orchestra and exotic percussion, the songs edited down, and an ornate staging by Netia Jones. Here’s a peek:


When tenor Ian Bostridge (whose interpretations of the original voice/piano Winterreise are always breathtaking) toured this version in 2017, critics seemed moved by his performance but somewhat baffled by the presentation as a whole. They wondered: why create a version of Schubert’s vocal masterpiece that changes the original score?

I would ask the same question about the Winterreise, released in 2017 on Coviello Records, by conductor/composer Gregor Meyer, who adds a newly created choral score and edits the piano part. I mean, seriously, why did the world need this? This recording is not on Spotify or YouTube, but you can hear the complete tracks of “Lindenbaum” and “Einsamkeit” (Loneliness) at this link.

German baritone Daniel Ochoa gives a convincing performance. His voice is rich, if sometimes a little wobbly, and he maintains the thread of melancholy that most performers pull through this truly melancholic song cycle (Bostridge, with his fits of fury and madness, being an exception). But Meyer’s new version does not help Ochoa convey the text. Take “Lindenbaum” (Linden Tree), for example.

Cristian Peix plays the piano introduction to “Lindenbaum” in the usual Schubertian way, full of energy and motion (remember, this is the composer who loved programmatic accompaniment so much that he used a piano to represent the irregular turns of a spinning wheel in the Faust-inspired “Gretchen am Spinnrad”!). Here the piano phrases swirl like gusts of wind through the linden tree’s branches. So, it starts off as it should.

Then the voice comes in. In Schubert’s original score, the piano slows down at this point, moving chord by chord in the same rhythm as the notes of the melody; this gives the voice a kind of percussive determination. Apparently Meyer decided that the doubling of the vocal line in the piano was nothing more than redundancy, so he stops the piano part when the voice comes in. And he has his choir, the Vocalconsort Leipzig, create a velvet backdrop for the solo voice by sustaining the syllable—I wish I were making this up—“Oooh.”

Hey, I get that the choir sounds pretty. But “pretty” is not an intelligent musical reason. What does Meyer think Schubert missed that the choir adds? That’s an especially important question when you consider how reducing the carefully textured piano part and replacing it with shapeless choir vocalise changes the whole color of the song.

To my mind, Winterreise is one of the most perfect pieces of music ever written. Don’t mess with it. But, by all means, keep singing it. There’s no such thing as too many recordings. I’ll be happy to listen to all of them.

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