24 January 2014

CD REVIEW: Franz Schubert – WINTERREISE (J. Kobow, C. Hammer; ATMA Classique ACD2 2536)

Franz Schubert - WINTERREISE (ATMA Classique ACD2 2536)

FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797 – 1828): Winterreise, D. 911—Jan Kobow, tenor; Christoph Hammer, fortepiano [Recorded at Schloss Seehaus, Markt Nordheim, Germany, in July 2011; ATMA Classique ACD2 2536; 1CD, 63:30; Available from ClassicsOnline, Amazon, and major music retailers]

Winterreise, Franz Schubert’s second cycle of Lieder settings of the poems of Wilhelm Müller, forever changed the arts of both composing and singing Lieder, advancing the form from Beethoven’s example to the heights of Romantic expression that would gestate the Lieder of Brahms, Mahler, and Richard Strauss.  In the intensity of emotion, contrasting moods, and eloquent melancholy, Winterreise is as powerful a work as La forza del destino, Das Lied von der Erde, or Vier letzte Lieder.  The challenge to the singer who takes on Winterreise is to realize in musical terms both the unique microcosm of each song and the abiding dramatic progression of the cycle as a whole.  On disc, there is also the challenge of comparison with nearly a century of recorded performances of the cycle by some of the greatest Lieder singers of the 20th and 21st Centuries.  Just in the first quarter of 2014, German tenor Jan Kobow faces competition in the Winterreise discography from fellow German tenor Jonas Kaufmann and Canadian baritone Gerald Finley, both esteemed interpreters of Schubert’s Lieder, but the display of artistry on offer from Jan Kobow in this traversal of Schubert’s perennially fascinating cycle confirms that this remarkable singer has nothing to fear from competing releases.

Playing a six-octave Joseph Brodmann fortepiano built in Vienna circa 1810, expertly prepared for the recording by Georg Ott, Christoph Hammer explores every tonal and dramatic possibility of employing a period instrument in Schubert’s accompaniments.  Schubert took the art of writing Lieder accompaniment that he learned from Beethoven’s 1816 An die ferne Geliebte to new levels of independence and broadly-conceived expressivity, the accompaniments in Winterreise echoing the sentiments expressed by the voice and unforgettably illustrating the physical and psychological settings.  Mr. Hammer takes great care to differentiate repeated statements of thematic material, following the lead of dramatic progression in the texts.  The light touch employed by Mr. Hammer in songs like the opening ‘Gute Nacht’ is refreshing and allows perfect synchronization with the rise and fall of Mr. Kobow’s interpretations, which are founded upon obviously deep understandings of Müller’s verses rather than impersonal traditions.  In lyrical songs like ‘Der Lindenbaum,’ Mr. Hammer’s caressing of the musical lines is particularly effective, especially considering that he achieves such gossamer effects without the sostenuto powers of a modern piano.  In the craggy, often sweepingly dramatic songs of the Second Part, Mr. Hammer’s accompaniment matches every nuance of Schubert’s ever-changing music and of Mr. Kobow’s hauntingly perceptive singing.  ‘Im Dorfe’ and ‘Der stürmische Morgen,’ two of the most demanding songs in the cycle, reveal the depths of Mr. Hammer’s technique, his playing soaring through Schubert’s most difficult passages with confidence.  It is often suggested, based upon contemporary evidence and the composer’s own correspondence, that Schubert was a moderately-capable pianist at best: perhaps that is true, but his writing for the piano in Winterreise is nothing short of perfection, and Mr. Hammer’s articulation and phrasing consistently highlight the composer’s musical wit and sheer genius.  The depths of emotion evoked by the accompaniment in this performance are a testament to the quality and meticulous preservation of the robust but sweet-toned fortepiano and to its player’s consummate musicality.

Mr. Kobow’s presiding concept of Winterreise is uncommonly poetic, words being central to his interpretive choices, but, most importantly, it is the glorious art of song that blossoms hypnotically in his performance.  Acclaimed as an interpreter of Baroque repertory, Mr. Kobow carries the mantle of Helmut Krebs and Ernst Haefliger, not least in the music of Bach.  If this suggests a slimness of timbre, it should not be forgotten that Haefliger sang rôles as diverse—and demanding—as Beethoven’s Florestan and Debussy’s Pelléas with great success, and in this versatility, too, Mr. Kobow is a natural successor to the wonderful Swiss tenor.  Haefliger was also a celebrated interpreter of Winterreise, his Claves recording of the cycle made when he was sixty-one years old capturing a still-vibrant voice in a memorable performance.  Not least in the polished beauty of his voice, Mr. Kobow proves superior even to Haefliger in this performance.  The sensitivity of Mr. Kobow’s artistry extends to an instinctual understanding of the capabilities of his own voice.  Every voice has inherent limitations, but few singers seem to possess the wisdom necessary to prevent them from forcing their natural instruments beyond the boundaries of good taste and vocal comfort.  Mr. Kobow is too shrewd a singer to risk distorting Schubert’s melodic lines by pushing his voice, but this is anything but a ‘safe’ performance.  Rather than evoking the poet’s angst via vocal distress, Mr. Kobow conveys anguish through pointed delivery of text allied with glowing tonal loveliness.  His resignation in ‘Gute Nacht’ is gently, even dreamily expressed, and both the chill of the wind in ‘Die Wetterfahne’ and the garish sting of ice and snow in ‘Gefrorne Tränen’ are all the more intense because of the firm, gleaming tone with which they are given life.  The top A-flats in ‘Erstarrung’ do not trouble Mr. Kobow as they do many tenors who sing Winterreise in Schubert’s original keys, and the singer’s phrasing in ‘Der Lindenbaum’ is broad but precise, the E-naturals that crown each statement of the principal theme integrated into the line rather than accentuated unnaturally.  Memories of happiness permeate Mr. Kobow’s singing of ‘Frühlingstraum,’ but already the strangely alluring spectre of death has crept in.  The succession of mundane images transformed into symbolic representations of the disintegration of mind and body in Part Two inspires Mr. Kobow to singing of exceptional emotional directness, his dramatic gifts enabling him to decry the sorrows of life and love with the power of a Siegfried or Tristan but the refined voice of an Orfeo or Renaud.  The grace notes and triplet figurations in ‘Letzte Hoffnung’ are like daggers tearing the flesh of a man clinging to life, and the top notes at zeniths of phrases—intuitively supported by Mr. Hammer—ring out appealingly.  There are so many instances of stylish, enlightened interpretation and simply gorgeous singing that hearing Mr. Kobow’s performance is like hearing Winterreise for the first time; or, for ears as acquainted with the cycle as with a beloved friend’s voice, like hearing it as it demands and deserves to be sung.

In the history of Winterreise on records, an astounding array of singers have succeeded in committing memorable performances of Schubert’s immortal music to disc: rotund low voices like those of Hans Hotter, Kurt Moll, and Martti Talvela; noble baritones like Sir Thomas Allen and Hermann Prey; and tenors as diverse as Ronald Dowd, René Kollo, Ian Partridge, and Sir Peter Pears.  Perhaps the greatest marvel of Schubert’s creativity in Winterreise is that there are in the recesses of the cycle’s exasperation, heartbreak, and starkness as many facets of interpretation as there are singers who accept the task of singing it.  No singer could hope to illuminate every niche of Winterreise, but by providing almost unbearably ravishing glimpses of the joy that is the only true impetus for such despair Jan Kobow gives as eloquent a performance of the cycle as has ever been recorded.  This wonderful singer feels every step of this Winter’s Journey with the tortured heart of a poet, and it is impossible to look away from even the cruelest vistas he creates in sound.