SCHUBERT Winterreise D911

Schubert’s seminal song-cycle: studio and live, male and female

Author: 
David Patrick Stearns

SCHUBERT Winterreise D911

  • Winterreise
  • Winterreise

Such diametrically opposed Winterreise performances here. In his second recording of the piece, Wolfgang Holzmair has an insider’s long experience with this King Lear of German song-cycles. Alice Coote, in an infrequent transgender performance, comes to the piece with an outsider’s freshness that demands to be heard no matter how much Winterreise mileage any given listener has logged.

At first, Holzmair seems to report the verse from a stunned distance: is his protagonist a post-traumatic stress disorder victim? Soon, though, this detachment turns into an interpretative sameness. Always one to incorporate the words into an ultra-smooth vocal line, Holzmair does so in this recording made in 2009 in ways that lack the cumulative emotional impact of his 1996 recording on Philips, leaving the words with curiously little sense of incident. His voice is recorded with so little immediacy that you hear mostly forced tone and weak low notes. The main appeal is pianist Andreas Haefliger: ‘Gute Nacht’ (No 1) opens with a brisk, merciless gait, establishing an overall structure alternating between physical motion (dancing, stumbling, that Haefliger animates with distinctive tempi) and reflecting on how it feels. Adjusting to Coote’s female voice is easy. The protagonist of Winterreise is less gender-specific than that of Die schöne Müllerin. While both cycles extensively use exterior imagery to describe interior states, those of Winterreise have fewer concrete images but more abstract accounts of weather. Few Winterreises enjoy Coote’s colouristic range. She has a soprano’s brightness in the upper reaches but welcome mezzo weight that she effectively uses to convey the abrupt arrival of a cold front. She’s unafraid of the pathos in ‘Einsamkeit’ (No 12). Turning points in the cycle, such as ‘Die Krähe’ (No 15), are conveyed with a previously unheard (usually darker) timbre. The pale tone that begins ‘Der Wegweiser’ (No 20) fades to black in an even darker night of the soul with an A-to-Z emotional range, leading to almost unbearable intensity in ‘Das Wirtshaus’ (No 21). The final song, ‘Der Leiermann’, seems a bit passive – but what emotion is there left to feel at that point?

For all her vivid theatricality and a vocal lyricism that sails over the bar-lines (allowing outwardly simple strophic songs such as ‘Gute Nacht’ to flow), she and Julius Drake don’t distort the music’s classical-period frame.Returning to Lotte Lehmann’s Winterreise excerpts for perspective in a female interpretation, one hears one of that great soprano’s less considered efforts with an out-of-tune piano. Yes, comparisons with Coote make Lehmann look bad. The ultimate compliment?

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