SCHUBERT Winterreise (Bostridge & Adès)
It’s over 15 years since Ian Bostridge released his EMI recording of Schubert’s final song-cycle and the intervening years have seen the publication of his superb book on the subject, Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession (Faber & Faber: 4/15). For anyone who, like me, wondered how all the ideas and observations that filled that volume might inform a performance of the work itself, then this release – recorded live at Wigmore Hall as part of an extended tour performing the work with Thomas Adès – gives some sort of answer.
It’s a Winterreise that keeps the listener guessing, and which seems to build on Bostridge’s idea, articulated in Winter Journey, that narrator and protagonist meld with the hurdy-gurdy man of the final song to keep the cycle on endless repeat. As such, we don’t have a straightforward tale of a young man losing faith and innocence the deeper he gets lost in the winter landscape; instead, it feels like a complex, ambiguous combination of (re)enactment, reminiscence and narration coloured by experience.
Adès largely provides a stable background against which Bostridge anchors his unpredictable interpretation, much as he might hold tight to the piano itself in performance. But Adès’s playing is also full of lovely details: the delicate tread of ‘Am Fluss’, an extra uncanny impishness in ‘Irrlicht’; a tangible brittleness of the melody in ‘Frühlingstraum’. Schubert’s tempo markings have been rethought and refreshed, too. ‘Die Krähe’ is daringly, hypnotically slow; ‘Täuschung’ really does dance in the way the poem describes.
As with Bostridge’s other recent Schubert albums, the tenor’s imagination and interpretative skill is made evident at almost every turn, and some will no doubt long for the more straightforward, instinctive approach of a Schreier or Prégardien. But Bostridge’s reluctance – or inability – to leave a phrase uncoloured, to leave words unpointed, here feels like an inevitable part of a compelling whole. The pained cries, ironic snarls and resigned retreats to pianissimo (and hints of tiredness at the voice’s extremes) are integral to an approach that is irresistible in its conviction, culminating in a ‘Der Leiermann’ in which Bostridge almost uncouples himself from Adès’s rhythmic foundations.
If the earlier recording felt like work-in progress, this new one feels like a culmination of decades of engagement with Wintereise. It might arguably be as much Bostridge’s Winter Journey as Schubert’s, yes, but I’m not sure there are many recordings of this ever-astonishing work that are more compelling.