SCHUBERT: Winterreise D. 911.
Ian Bostridge, tenor; Leif Ove Andsnes, pianist
EMI CLASSICS 57790 (F) (DDD) TT: 69:27


Of the nearly 1,000 songs (mostly for solo voice) that Schubert composed between March 30, 1811, and Die Taubenpost and Der Hirt auf dem Felsen in October 1828, less than a month before his death at age 31, he created only two song-cycles: Die schöne Müllerin (The Lovely Mill-Maid) in October-November of 1823, and Die Winterreise (The Winter Journey) between February and the spring of 1827 – altogether 44 Lieder. These were based on poetic cycles by Wilhelm Müller (1794-1827), described by the late Philip L. Miller in The Ring of Words as “leader of the Berlin school of poets [to whom] Heine acknowledged his debt with unaccustomed modesty.” Although Müller and Schubert both lived in Vienna during the same period, they never met, despite the closeness of their ages and the poet’s death just a year before Schubert’s. Müller was strongly influenced by Goethe, if hardly in the same class (or even in the same league), but his verse appealed to Schubert although today it strikes one as maudlin without the composer’s transformation into echt art. Die schöne Müllerin was composed during the period when Schubert was diagnosed with syphilis and treated for a time in Vienna’s General Hospital. Of Müller’s original 24 poems in four sections, Schubert set 20. It remains by wide consent not only the first but most beloved song cycle in the entire Lieder repertory. In 1827, Schubert came upon another Müller collection originally published in Leipzig four years earlier, altogether bleaker in spirit (perhaps the poet, too, was a victim of syphilis, widespread in Vienna after Prince Metternich convened the Congress of 1815 that brought not only statesmen but whores from all over Europe. How Schubert contracted it – I have always suspected his on-again-off-again roommate Franz von Schober, a well-born wastrel who eked out a stage career in cross-dressing roles (although he did write the poem for “An die Musik”) – the source remains one of many secrets in Schubert’s romanticized career.

In any case, by 1827 the disease had returned, and Schubert’s expressed delight in finding another set of verses by Müller was surely (at the very least arguably) colored by their pervasive pessimism. This time Schubert set all 24 poems, in two parts with very little either textual or musical to relieve a blackness of mood. Its appeal to both the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and the playwright Samuel Beckett speaks volumes. I’ve known the cycle now for more than 50 years and continue to find it almost unbearably beautiful but at the same time morbid. Arkiv lists some 70 available recordings, including a few historic duplications on different labels, and at least seven different versions by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who never surpassed his 1955 version for EMI with Gerald Moore at the piano, produced by Walter Legge. Likewise, their collaboration on Die schöne Müllerin from 1951, despite Fi-Di’s subsequent efforts well past his vocal prime to bring new insights using various pianists.

Interestingly, Die Winterreise became a staple in the repertoire of baritone and bass Liedermeister, of whom the most recent have been Matthias Görne and Thomas Quasthoff. But Hans Hotter’s remains searingly in the ear, even if the most terrifying was by Jon Vickers in his Peter Grimes persona (so much more crazed than Peter Pears, the original Grimes, who also recorded Die Winterreise with Benjamin Britten at the keyboard). Tenors otherwise have been fewer, although Peter Anders made two versions before his untimely death, and Peter Schreier a storied version that eerily befit his aging voice. Despite an overtly masculine text, there have even been at least three complete versions by Liederen – Lotte Lehmann the first in 1941, more recently Christa Ludwig and Brigitte Fassbänder.

Now we have a version based on the latest scholarship (especially as regards dynamic markings and key signatures) by Ian Bostridge. perhaps the finest Lieder tenor of our time, imposingly abetted by pianist Leif Ove Andsnes. If the latter tends in the beginning to be heavy-handed – his exaggerated dynamics in the introduction of “Gute Nacht,” the first song, being a case in point – very soon he and Bostridge are on the same rarified, which is not to suggest prettified, wave length. Theirs is more cherishable for repeated listenings than Vickers, although not without occasional similarities, indeed more repeatable than any I know since Anders, which is as close to a rave among tenor Die Winterreisen as I can come. At the same time the music remains, for me, the single most downbeat song-cycle in the pre-WW I repertoire. The genius of Schubert is transcendental, but Müller’s maudlin ghost hovers, even for non-German speaking listeners. Despite an outdoor setting throughout, the pall of a death-room clings. It seems fitting that Schubert died whilst editing his publisher’s proofs of Part 2.

Die Winterreise is a masterpiece – a high-water mark in the history of music. But when I want to hear a song cycle by Schubert it is Die schöne Müllerin – in the EMI recording that Olaf Bär made in 1986 with the late Geoffrey Parsons. A Double-ff budget-coupling of it and Die Winterreise of 1988 is gone from inventories, but both survive in a four-disc set of Schubert Lieder (along with Schwanengesang, i.e. “Swan Song,” that the publisher issued posthumously although it was not composed as a cycle; and a fourth disc of individual songs). Bär’s rod and staff comfort me; in fact, he remains my favorite German lyric baritone in the last decade and a half of the 20th century.
Bostridge, however, remains my favorite Schubert tenor of the 21st century. See if you don’t agree.

R.D. (September 2004)