SCHUBERT Winterreise (in English)
We’re still used to opera being performed in English, not least on record through the series sponsored by the late Peter Moores, so why not Lieder in the vernacular? The same arguments regarding directness, of allowing the words to be communicated unmediated, apply, of course. Without the theatrical element, though, those words themselves are inevitably open to a great deal more scrutiny – particularly on record.
This new translation by Jeremy Sams – experienced opera translator as well as son of Lieder-expert Eric – was designed with directness in mind, not least since it will be performed by Roderick Williams and Christopher Glynn around schools in the UK. In a booklet note, Sams describes the cycle’s protagonist as ‘modern … Nothing romantic here’. His language, therefore, ‘has to be modern, detached, straightforward’. He certainly achieves that aim, with both the words and Wilhelm Müller’s craggy, laconic narrative coming across clearly.
But those familiar with the cycle in German will take some convincing, I suspect, and they’ll note too that several of the translations are more like rewrites. The ‘Linden Tree’ is mentioned only in the final verse of that song here; there are no ravens cawing from the roof in ‘Dreaming of Spring’. Anyone who’s read Ian Bostridge’s own Winter Journey (Faber and Faber, 4/15) will be particularly sensitive to those images of Müller’s that have been adjusted or jettisoned.
Such compromises must be counted among the inevitable prices to pay in translation, and Sams’s task lies somewhere between unenviable and straightforwardly impossible. But although he sets out to avoid ‘the inversions present in all kinds of verse’, his versions can nevertheless feel like an uneasy mixture of the modern and the strangely stilted. Poetry is often sacrificed for directness, and I remain unconvinced by references, for example, to the river’s ‘rush and gush and boom’, the rhyming of ‘snoring’ and ‘boring’ in ‘In the Village’, or the description of the ‘Stormy Morning’ as ‘A proper witches brew’.
There’s no faulting Glynn’s detailed, sensitive piano-playing, and Williams’s performances are characteristically eloquent, with the lower reaches of his voice, in particular, sounding in particularly good shape. For me the lightness of his timbre and his precise, well-schooled way with the words mean that this Wanderer’s tragedy itself feels a little less elemental than it can.