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Winterreise [sound recording]

af Franz Schubert

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Franz Schubert (1797–1828)

Winterreise, D911

Liederzyklus nach Gedichte von Wilhelm Müller

[1] Gute Nacht [5’38]
[2] Die Wetterfahne [1’46]
[3] Gefrorne Tränen [2’37]
[4] Erstarrung [2’58]
[5] Der Lindenbaum [4’41]
[6] Wasserflut [4’10]
[7] Auf dem Flusse [3’45]
[8] Rückblick [2’26]
[9] Irrlicht [2’33]
[10] Rast [3’02]
[11] Frühlingstraum [4’00]
[12] Einsamkeit [2’53]
[13] Die Post [2’20]
[14] Der greise Kopf [3’03]
[15] Die Krähe [2’00]
[16] Letzte Hoffnung [2’15]
[17] Im Dorfe [3’02]
[18] Der stürmische Morgen [0’52]
[19] Täuschung [1’34]
[20] Der Wegweiser [4’08]
[21] Das Wirtshaus [4’28]
[22] Mut! [1’25]
[23] Die Nebensonnen [2’37]
[24] Der Leiermann [3’09]

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone
Jörg Demus, piano


Recorded: 5/1965, UFA-Studio, Berlin.

Deutsche Grammophon, 1995. DG Originals. 71’22. Lyrics (Ger+Eng+Fr). Liner notes by Karl Schumann.

===============================================

How many recordings of Winterreise did Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau make? This is not an easy question to answer. Counting officially released live and radio performances (*), I think the most accurate answer is twelve:

1948, Billing (Documents).*
1952, Reutter (Audite).*
1953, Klust (Melodram).*
1955, Moore (EMI).
1962, Moore (EMI).
1965, Demus (DG).
1971, Moore (DG).
1978, Pollini (Orfeo).*
1979, Barenboim (DG).
1979, Brendel, video (TDK).
1986, Brendel (Philips).
1989, Perahia (Sony).

I own three of them (1965, 1971, 1979 Brendel) and I have heard four more (1952, 1955, 1979 Barenboim, 1989). There is not much to choose between them. There are countless differences, but pretty much all of them are minor details. I leave it to the “connoisseurs” to discuss these while doing some “comparative listening”. I would rather concentrate on the music.

Winterreise, composed during the penultimate winter, spring and summer of Schubert’s life in 1827[1], is generally regarded as the greatest song cycle in existence. This is, of course, a foolish oversimplification. But it is not entirely untrue.

If you read the poems without the music, which you should before listening, they might strike you as the ultimate Romantic rubbish: a hapless lover wanders around in winter and talks to linden tress, brooks, crows and the snow, usually lamenting his condition and wallowing in self-pity. (“Klagen ist für Toren” indeed!) In truth, however, Wilhelm Müller’s poems are no worse – and sometimes much better – than a good deal of German Romantic poetry produced at the turn of the nineteenth century, including plenty set to music by Schubert (including some poems by the two most exalted luminaries of deutsche Dichtkunst, Goethe and Schiller). There is a kernel of truth beneath Müller’s extravagant unhappiness. The first stanza of “Rast”, for example, may be taken for a fine summary of the human condition:

Nun merk’ ich erst wie müd’ ich bin,
Da ich zur Ruh’ mich lege;
Das Wandern hielt mich munter hin
Auf unwirtbarem Wege.
[2]

It is no wonder that Schubert found inspiration in Müller’s verses. What is wondrous is the sustained sublimity of this inspiration. Be warned: listening to the whole cycle may have a serious depressing effect. But this is the point, of course. There is little relief during those 70 minutes or so, and it all turns out to be dreams (“Frühlingstraum”), memories (“Der Lindenbaum”), delusions (“Die Post”) or mere bravado (“Mut”). Each of the 24 songs is a gem polished to perfection, but neither the few of them which have become well-known separately (“Der Lindenbaum” and “Frühlingstraum” for sure, perhaps also “Gute Nacht” and “Die Post”), nor any of the others can possibly convey the impact of the whole cycle. Perhaps the closing (and crowning) jewel, “Der Leiermann”, comes closest to doing this. The text is bleak beyond description, and the music, stripped to the barest essentials, makes it unforgettable:

Drüben hinterm Dorfe
Steht ein Leiermann
Und mit starren Fingern
Dreht er was er kann.

Barfuß auf dem Eise
Wankt er hin und her
Und sein kleiner Teller
Bleibt ihm immer leer.

Keiner mag ihn hören,
Keiner sieht ihn an,
Und die Hunde knurren
Um den alten Mann.

Und er läßt es gehen,
Alles wie es will,
Dreht, und seine Leier
Steht ihm nimmer still.

Wunderlicher Alter!
Soll ich mit dir geh’n?
Willst zu meinen Liedern
Deine Leier dreh’n?
[3]

Winterreise has proved popular with all sorts of singers. There is no shortage of complete recordings. If you fancy the bass voice, there are Hans Hotter (1954, EMI) and Kurt Moll (1982, Orfeo). If you like tenors better, there are options as different as Kaufmann (2014, Sony) and Bostridge (2004, EMI), not to mention Jon Vickers (1973, EMI) and Peter Schreier (1991, Decca). Recordings by baritones, in addition to the DFD cornucopia, include Prey (1961, EMI), Quasthoff (1998, RCA) and Hampson (1996, EMI). If you like women instead, there are Christa Ludwig (DG, 1986), Brigitte Fassbaender (1988, EMI) and Lotte Lehmann (1940-41, Pearl). This is very far from complete survey, and I am not going to pretend I have heard more than a few snippets from these wildly diverse artistic responses to Schubert’s idea of winter journey. Truth is, I have never felt much inclination to do more than that.

For me, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau owns this cycle, much as I hate using this verb in this context. Even in his last recording with Perahia, where he is clearly past his prime and unable to cope with the music in purely vocal terms, DFD always produces a truly shattering effect. Back in 1952, still in his twenties, he had very definite ideas about interpretation and, what is much more amazing, the musicianship to do them justice. The 1965 recording with the excellent Jörg Demus at the piano is as good as they come. My only quibble is the sound which fails to capture some sharp dynamic leaps (e.g. the ending of “Der Leiermann”). But it’s no big deal.

Trying to describe the indescribable is a silly thing to do. Still, just a few things to pay attention to by way of illustration of Fischer-Dieskau’s vocal artistry. He does complete justice to the extreme emotional contrasts of “Frühlingstraum” and “Der Lindenbaum”. Note how the voice, not to mention the music, changes completely from breathless legato and mezza voce in the lyrical stanzas (be they dreams or memories) to thunderous recitatives in the highly dramatic moments (be they reality or storm). Fischer-Dieskau’s tone palette can always surprise with unexpected colour. In the second stanza of “Gefror’ne Tränen”, for example, he produces a ghostly, otherworldly and positively spooky tone. The effect is startling, to say the least. The diction is without exception, whether in the headlong rush of “Rückblick” or in the endless melodic lines of “Der Lindenbaum”, exceptionally clear. Many words and phrases are searing, unforgettable. Just listen to “Schnee zerrinnt” in the second stanza of the immensely affecting “Wasserflut” or to “der Blumen im Winter sah” in the third stanza of the frightening “Frühlingstraum” or...

And so on, and so forth! One can go on like that forever. This particular winter journey is inexhaustible. But it’s much better just to listen to the whole thing, and follow the lyrics carefully (unless you know them by heart). Unless you’re a poet – and perhaps not even then – it makes no sense writing about it.

With the exception of Boris Christoff, I have never heard a greater vocal artist in possession of a more versatile voice than Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, especially in this intimate and highly specialised repertoire in which very few opera singers have succeeded. Schubert’s ghost could not have dreamed of a more subtle and more perceptive champion of his Lieder.

_______________________________________________________
[1] Incidentally, Wilhelm Müller died on 30 September 1827, aged only 32. There is no evidence that Schubert knew of this tragic event, nor that Müller knew his schöne Müllerin had been immortalised by Schubert’s music in 1823.

[2] Richard Stokes and George Bird translated this stanza (The Fischer-Dieskau Book of Lieder, Alfred A. Knopf, 1977, p. 185) as follows:

My weariness I notice only
as I lie down to rest.
Walking, I keep going
on the desolate road.


[3] The translation of Messrs Stokes and Bird (ibid., p. 189) is the following:

There, beyond the village
an organ-grinder stands,
and with numb fingers
plays as best he can.

Barefoot on the ice
he staggers to and fro,
and his little plate
stays forever empty.

No one cares to listen,
no one looks at him,
and dogs snarl
around the old man.

And he lets it happen,
everything as it will,
and plays on,
his hurdy-gurdy never still.

Strange old man,
shall I go with you?
Will you, to my songs,
play your hurdy-gurdy?
( )
2 stem Waldstein | Jan 1, 2018 |
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