05 March 2014

CD REVIEW: Franz Schubert – WINTERREISE (Jonas Kaufmann, tenor; Helmut Deutsch, piano; Sony Classical 88883795632 & Gerald Finley, baritone; Julius Drake, piano; Hyperion CDA68034)

Franz Schubert - WINTERREISE (Jonas Kaufmann - Sony Classical 88883795632; Gerald Finley - Hyperion CDA68034) FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797 – 1828): Die Winterreise, D 911—(1) Jonas Kaufmann, tenor; Helmut Deutsch, piano [Recorded in August Everding Saal, Grünwald, Germany, 22 – 27 October 2013; Sony Classical 88883795632; 1CD, 70:17; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]; (2) Gerald Finley, baritone; Julius Drake, piano [Recorded in All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, London, UK, 26 – 28 February 2013; Hyperion CDA68034; 1CD, 74:37; Available from Amazon, iTunes, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Intriguingly, two of the most anticipated new Classical releases in the first half of 2014 are recordings of Franz Schubert’s Winterreise, the dolorous composer’s cycle of settings of twenty-four poems by his almost exact contemporary Wilhelm Müller (1794 – 1827) that redefined the Lieder cycle from the moment of its genesis. The influence and inescapable allure that Winterreise has exerted on singers are testaments to the depth of Schubert’s musical genius and the histrionic power of the Cycle’s dramatic expression. In the generations since its publication, Winterreise has attracted singers of every conceivable Fach, but on records and in recital halls performances of this searching music have often called to mind Oscar Wilde’s aphorism that ‘there are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.’ Every listener who loves Winterreise harbors fantasies of hearing the Cycle sung by particular singers: that many of those fantasies are ultimately more enjoyable in theory than their realizations are in practice is indicative of the extraordinary demands of these Lieder. On the page, not one of the songs in Winterreise seems enormously challenging, but the number of singers who have come to grief in the simplest of them is too great to quantify. What some singers seemingly fail to understand—or, else, to ignore—is that Winterreise is a journey that cannot be successfully undertaken solely on either vocal or interpretive footing. Among today’s singers with confirmed Lieder credentials, few artists have inspired more fervent hopes for noble Winterreise recordings than German tenor Jonas Kaufmann and Canadian baritone Gerald Finley. In addition to proven gifts for breathing new life into operatic characters and rescuing well-meaning productions from drudgery, these gentlemen possess charisma and voices of true quality, and they have devoted themselves as meaningfully to preserving the Art of Song as to pursuing success in the world’s opera houses. In these cash-strapped times, it is slightly regrettable that two recordings of Winterreise of such interest should be released in close proximity (and, further, hard on the heels of the superb ATMA Classique recording with Jan Kobow and Christoph Hammer), especially as both of these recordings largely meet the expectations kindled by their protagonists. Saving pennies is in order, however, as both of these Winterreises are essential listening.

The principal stumbling block for pianists who play Winterreise is the ambiguity of its demands: requiring impeccable technique, the music also asks the thoughtful pianist to suppress ego before opening the score. A performance in which the pianist merely accompanies the singer misses much of the inner angst of Winterreise, and the endeavors of a pianist who regards the Cycle as a piano recital with vocal obbligato are no less damaging. Both Mr. Kaufmann and Mr. Finley are fortunate to share their traversals of Winterreise with insightful pianists whose technical deftness enables them to focus on supporting and supplementing the nuances of their colleagues’ interpretations. Mr. Kaufmann has studied and collaborated with Helmut Deutsch throughout his career, and the perspicuity of their close artistic partnership emanates from every note of their performance of Winterreise. Having worked with some of the most celebrated Lieder singers of recent years, Mr. Deutsch obviously knows his way round this music, but the foremost achievement of his playing in this recording is the naturalness with which he matches every detail of Mr. Kaufmann’s singing while also honoring Schubert’s tempo and dynamic markings. The grim resignation of ‘Gute Nacht’ is poignantly conveyed by Mr. Deutsch’s plodding delivery of the droning eighth-note bass line. Trills, grace notes, and accents are executed with attention to dramatic as well as musical values, and the critical triplet figures in a song like ‘Erstarrung’ are precisely but not rigidly played. The delicacy of Mr. Deutsch’s playing in ‘Der Lindenbaum’ is very effective, and the concentration of his articulation intensifies breathlessly in the second half of the Cycle, as Mr. Kaufmann builds to the climax of his performance. Mr. Finley also has a long-standing partnership with his Winterreise companion, Julius Drake. One of the most respected Lieder accompanists of his generation, Mr. Drake also has a special affinity for the music of Schubert and already has two provocative accounts of Winterreise—David Alden’s film version with Ian Bostridge and a live performance from Wigmore Hall with Alice Coote—in circulation. In this performance with Mr. Finley, Mr. Drake supplies pianism of extraordinary flexibility. Unusually for a performance of Winterreise, there is no sense of the pianist following the singer: rather, Mr. Drake and Mr. Finley jointly set tempi, devise phrasing, and pursue unorthodox avenues of interpretation. Mr. Drake’s playing aptly shivers with the chill of ‘Gefror’ne Tränen,’ and the nervous tension of ‘Wasserflut’ gushes from the piano’s strings. ‘Die Krähe,’ one of the Cycle’s most ironic songs but one that many performers allow to pass uneventfully, receives a stinging performance from Mr. Drake. All of the naturalistic scenic elements of ‘Im Dorfe’ are conjured with artless immediacy, and throughout the performance Mr. Drake instinctively anticipates the rise and fall of Mr. Finley’s singing, which in the work of an imaginative artist varies no matter how meticulously a piece has been rehearsed. The pinnacle of Mr. Drake’s performance is ‘Mut,’ which palpitates with desperate endeavors at keeping desolation at arm’s length. Both Mr. Deutsch and Mr. Drake are gifted, shrewd interpreters of Schubert’s music, and their contributions to these Winterreise performances are astute and often visionary. Mr. Drake takes the pianistic laurels by the smallest of margins, but any singer would be privileged to be in the company of either of these artists.

Vocally, a contest that pits Jonas Kaufmann against Gerald Finley creates nothing but strife for the blighted adjudicator. There is nothing suggestive of competition in these recordings of Winterreise, of course, and one of the most surprising aspects of hearing both performances in succession is that, vocally, there are many shared qualities between the two singers. Mr. Kaufmann is a tenor but one with a bronzed, decidedly baritonal timbre, and though Mr. Finley descends in his singing of several of the songs into a lower register of which a basso profondo might be proud there are many passages that draw from him a lighter, almost tenorial sound. Both singers begin their journeys with performances of ‘Gute Nacht’ that simmer with emotions that seem almost too personal to express, but thereafter their approaches differ significantly. Mr. Kaufmann of course adheres to the keys indicated in Schubert’s manuscripts, and his top notes often seem like stars that shine over a turbulent indigo sea. When ‘Gute Nacht’ modulates from the minor to the major, the effect is one of happy memories taking hold, even if temporarily. His singing of ‘Frühlingstraum’ is almost teasing, but the isolation depicted in the performance of ‘Einsamkeit’ that follows is harrowing, the voice drained of color. In ‘Letzte Hoffnung,’ in which Schubert so wittily sends the song’s tonal center whirling like a leaf in the grip of an autumn wind, the quietude of Mr. Kaufmann’s interpretation comes to its most eloquent fruition. Emotions are kept in check in ‘Mut,’ with its intervals managed with an ease that lends the song the simplicity of a folk melody. The grim resolution conveyed in ‘Die Nebensonnen,’ to which Mr. Kaufmann brings an immensely moving mezza voce, is startling for being so restrained, and his singing of the final song, ‘Der Leiermann,’ is notable for its evocation of a soul for which living is more cruel than death. There is very little raging at the heavens in Mr. Kaufmann’s performance: rather, he reflects with equal measures of regret and calm surrender on a life in which pain seems the inevitable price paid for moments of joy. Vocally, all of the hallmarks of Mr. Kaufmann’s singing are in evidence, his intonation unimpeachably secure and the effect of his superb diction undermined only by a few extravagantly-trilled r’s. Mr. Kaufmann’s operatic performances have often begotten comparisons with Jon Vickers, but his singing of Winterreise confirms just how different these voices are. There is something of the brawn of Vickers’s delivery in Mr. Kaufmann’s singing, but the latter’s voice is an instrument of considerably more modest proportions. At his best, as he is in this recording, his powers of interpretation are both more introspective and more sensitive than Vickers’s, and his affinity for Winterreise—in fairness, not an ideal vehicle for comparison—is greater by far.

Mr. Finley’s Winterreise is also an earnestly individual journey, shaped by a perceivable notion of the cumulative impact of the Cycle as a whole. The bleakness of his singing of ‘Erstarrung’ is achieved without undue heaviness, and even when he sinks into his obsidian-hued lower register he completely avoids lugubriousness. There is a touching element of boyish wonder in Mr. Finley’s ‘Der Lindenbaum,’ and the mildly ridiculous exasperation of ‘Rückblick’ is endearing. The physical torment of ‘Rast’ upsets the inexorable but dignified progress of Mr. Finley’s course, and hereafter there is an unnerving rawness to the emotions that is exacerbated by the contrast with the resonant beauty of the voice. Mr. Finley is not afraid to approach the upper register very lightly, but there is nothing cautious or insubstantial in his singing. The crestfallen bitterness that floods his voice in ‘Die Post’ is gripping, and the embarrassed terror of a man who should he hardened to such feelings in ‘Der stürmische Morgen’ is wonderfully genuine. ‘Täuschung’ is a muted statement of acknowledgement of the duplicity of life as reflected in nature, and Mr. Finley infuses his timbre with the hint of a shudder. There is in ‘Der Wegweiser’ the suggestion of a man in conflict with his own intellect: he knows all too well where the road he is traveling leads, but he hopes that his sorrow has deceived him. It is in his singing of ‘Das Wirtshaus’ that Mr. Finley’s performance takes on the somber cast of inescapable tragedy. Denied acceptance even by the graveyard, he must carry on, and in ‘Mut’ Mr. Finley invests his roundest tones in a robust but half-hearted declaration of perseverance. The singer’s ‘Die Nebensonnen’ is a complex distillation of clarity from the confusion of a life altered beyond recognition, and Mr. Finley’s performance of ‘Der Leiermann’ is the logical conclusion to a Cycle that has propagated not a transition from life to death or from joy to sorrow but has molded a new understanding of the disillusionment of life and love. As a singer, Mr. Finley is clearly in his prime, and the vocalism in this performance of Winterreise is nothing short of immaculate. Words are given their full weight without distortions or over-emphatic enunciations marring the vocal lines. The beauty of Mr. Finley’s voice remains pristine, and there are aspects of his singing that awaken memories of the greatest interpreters of Winterreise of the past: the nobility of the sound recalls Gerhard Hüsch, the umber quality of the lower register brings Hans Hotter to mind, and the intuitive use of text seems learned from Anton Dermota. What this suggests is not a derivative Winterreise but one that ensnares the listener’s psyche from the first note because it is so uniquely uncontrived.

Perhaps recorded more frequently, by a greater variety of voices, and with a more extensive field of success and failure than any other Lieder cycle in the history of the genre, Winterreise is an implicit rite of passage to which virtually every Lieder singer must submit. A fate fully justified by the quality of the music, this is nonetheless a state that has injured the Cycle. It is always dangerous when singers approach a score because their perceptions of how a meaningful career is attained dictate that they must do so, and indescribable barbarity has been enacted on Winterreise by sophomoric, insufficiently prepared performances. Awareness of the peculiar traits of musical and poetic humanity that make Winterreise an enduring masterpiece of Western art comes with experience, not age. Still, it has been rare in recent years for singers to rise to standards of interpretation of Winterreise worthy of comparison with the great artists of the past while also singing on a level that permits translation of their concepts into satisfying musical terms. In direct comparison, Jonas Kaufmann’s Winterreise is the more brooding and powerful and Gerald Finley’s the more direct and poetic. The interpretations of both singers are heartfelt and valid, and their recordings enrich the Winterreise discography. Above all, these performances are sung with aching beauty that reaches across the years to the soul of a composer who, even as he was dying, felt life with an incisiveness denied to all but true artists.