FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797 – 1828): Winterreise, D911—Dimitris Tiliakos, baritone; Vassilis Varvaresos, piano [Recorded in Stichting Westvest 90, Schiedam, Netherlands, 21 – 25 July 2015; Navis Classics NC16008; 1 CD, 76:27; Available from Navis Classics, Amazon (USA), fnac (France), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]
In the wondrously discombobulating realm of music written for the human voice, there are works that artists with sufficient good sense to safeguard their vocal endowments and respect their places in the distinguished history of song approach—or should approach—with healthy reverence. The soprano who regards Norma’s ‘Casta diva,’ Isolde’s Liebestod, or Brünnhilde’s Immolation as mere intersections of notes and words is unlikely to find lasting success singing any of these epic pieces. The violinist who perceives in the scores of the Beethoven, Brahms, and Bruch concerti only opportunities for technical peacocking is not worthy of the music. For the conscientious Lieder singer, Franz Schubert’s genre-defining Winterreise is a work of similar significance, one that must be studied, absorbed, felt, even loved before it can be satisfactorily sung. In this music, it is not enough to master the notes and correctly pronounce the words. Unsurprisingly, the Schubert discography is littered with merely competent recordings of Winterreise, many of which sound beautiful to the ears but communicate nothing to the heart. For those who cherish the Art of Song, the release of a new recording of Winterreise is cause for equal excitement and trepidation. Recorded with great skill and obvious affection by the label’s manager, Daan van Aalst, with the ideal natural acoustical balance between voice and piano for which all labels recording Lieder repertory should strive, Navis Classics’ Winterreise is a traversal of this epic cycle that is truly a journey, one that takes the listener into ominous, uncomfortable recesses of the psyche with the emotional directness and collaborative musicality missing from so many performances and recordings of Winterreise. Most crucially, the heart that beats tumultuously at the core of this Winterreise is Schubert’s, an attribute that has eluded the endeavors many of the most famous names in the cycle’s storied history on records.
Born on the picturesque island of Rhodes, situated just off the southwest coast of Turkey but one of Greece’s Dodecanese islands, baritone Dimitri Tiliakos brings to his work an artistry steeped in the millennia of history and traditions of his homeland. Following study of the viola, he honed his vocal technique under the tutelage of his illustrious countryman, the still-too-little-appreciated baritone Kostas Paskalis. Upon that foundation, he has built an impressive international career that, to date, has taken him to many of the world’s important opera houses, including New York’s Metropolitan Opera, where he débuted as Schaunard in Puccini’s La bohème in 2010. His resonantly masculine but sympathetic Aeneas opposite Simone Kermes’s Dido on Teodor Currentzis’s fascinating recording of Purcell’s operatic magnum opus will soon be joined by his performance of the title rôle in the conductor’s Sony recording of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, recorded in Perm in December 2015. His partner in this Winterreise, prize-winning pianist Vassilis Varvaresos, is also a native of Greece, born in Thessaloniki, the capital of Greek Macedonia. Having been heard in prestigious venues including New York’s Carnegie Hall, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, Paris’s Salle Gaveau, and The White House, where he played at the invitation of President Barack Obama, Varvaresos has garnered a reputation as an exceptional interpreter of a wide repertory that includes his own compositions. It is fanciful to suggest that the baritone’s and pianist’s common nationality engenders heightened artistic accord, but the synergy that this pair of artists bring to their performance of Winterreise is incredible. The songs, first published in 1828, here sound as though they are being extemporized by a single artist before the studio microphones. Tiliakos and Varvaresos phrase in tandem with the synchronicity of dance partners, the baritone’s voice and the pianist’s fingers executing an eloquent pas de deux that bridges the two centuries between Schubert’s composition of the Lieder and today with startling immediacy. This is a reading of Winterreise that does not shrink from extremes of dynamics and tempo and is all the better for it. Winterreise is not a dainty odyssey: why do so many performers fidget with the music as though it were?
From the start of ‘Gute Nacht,’ it is apparent that this will be no ordinary, ‘safe’ Winterreise. Tiliakos’s mezza voce is wonderful, sustained and projected by his exemplary breath control, and his soft singing is often mesmerizing. He touches notes above the stave gently but without resorting to falsetto, and he shares with Hermann Prey and Heinrich Schlusnus the ability to sing piano without crooning or condescending. The modulation to the major for the last stanza of ‘Gute Nacht’ is cathartic as Tiliakos sings it, the tension unostentatiously resolved. Varvaresos executes the trills in the opening bars of ‘Die Wetterfahne’ with uncommon rhythmic crispness, the ornaments for once bring perfectly in time with the melodic line as they should be but seldom are, and Tiliakos displays the strength of his voice, slight hints of unsteadiness at the top of the range showing themselves when the volume increases. However, the baritone does not use Schubert’s most animated passages as an opportunity to overwhelm the music with pseudo-operatic grandstanding. Varvaresos’s playing of the restless accompaniment of ‘Gefrorne Tränen’ complements Tiliakos’s listless, almost embarrassed interpretation of the song, and their sensitive but unsentimental ‘Erstarrung,’ a song that goes for nothing in many performances of Winterreise, is unexpectedly one of the most vivid numbers in their cycle. ‘Der Lindenbaum’ is justifiably among Schubert’s most admired Lieder, and the delicacy of singing and pianism with which it is shaped here is very effective, disclosing the inherent rightness of handling the song with simplicity. The effortlessness with which Tiliakos braves Schubert’s awkward intervals in ‘Wasserflut’ lends the song eerie charm.
The enigmatic atmosphere of ‘Auf dem Flusse’ is conjured by the pianist and deepened by the singer, their work highlighting the haunting power of the song. The rumbling accompaniment of ‘Rückblick’ is played by Varvaresos with pinpoint accuracy and Stravinskian buoyancy. Tiliakos traces the uncertain, somewhat disjointed vocal line with the kind of technical security that enables searching dramatic introspection. Their ‘Irrlicht,’ too, possesses an unnerving charisma that permeates the performance: the song’s essence is both chilling and comforting. With its suspended resolutions of cadences and ritornello-like piano part, ‘Rast’ is a link with the Baroque, its dialogue between voice and instrument reminiscent of music like the Largo ma non tanto movement of Bach’s D-minor Concerto for Two Violins (BWV 1043). Tiliakos and Varvaresos duet with the sacrosanct trust of chamber musicians. Echoes of Haydn resound in ‘Frühlingstraum,’ translated by both singer and pianist into statements in Schubert’s most concentrated Romantic language. In a sense, the first strains of ‘Einsamkeit’ are like a fun-house mirror reflection of ‘Der Lindenbaum,’ but Tiliakos sings it so unaffectedly that the song’s latent spiritual grotesqueries seem less like torments and more like much-needed companions.
‘Die Post’ is an example of the breadth of Schubert’s talent for cinematic use of the piano, the unmistakable sounds of galloping post carriage horses and the post horn in the song’s accompaniment contrasting with the unperturbed stasis of the vocal line. Varvaresos and Tiliakos present the song straightforwardly, completely avoiding some performances’ intimation that it is a piano recital into which a singer wanders. There is a vein of affection in ‘Der greise Kopf’ that many artists do not bother to tap, but Tiliakos and Varvaresos extract the plasma from the piece and transfuse it into their musical veins, portentously imparting the text’s ambivalence about growing old. The inquisitive crow that appears in ‘Die Krähe’ is welcomed as a comrade by Tikiakos’s narrator rather than being dismissed as an intruder, and he and Varvaresos give the song a gentle humor. ‘Letzte Hoffnung’ is not as bleak as its title suggests, and this performance focuses on an unexaggerated articulation of the text, eschewing the melodramatic wailing in which some performers mire the song. As sung here, ‘Im Dorfe’ is an unusually clear-sighted examination of the perceived manifestations of human emotions in their physical surroundings, an exploration furthered in ‘Der stürmische Morgen,’ imaginatively played and sung. Throughout his survey of the Lieder in Winterreise, Tiliakos exhibits propitious confidence in the full range demanded by the music, rising without strain to notes above the stave and descending with similar assurance to the bottom of the compass. His diction is clear without seeming stilted or artificial, and so well-matched is Varvaresos’s phrasing, even when piano and voice pursue divergent paths, that it would be easy to erroneously regard this Winterreise as the product of a single musician.
The unique sensibilities of Tiliakos’s and Varvaresos’s explication of the psychological intricacies of Winterreise are distilled into a laser-like focus in the sequence of the final six songs of the cycle. The subtleties of ‘Täuschung’ are insightfully differentiated from the prevailingly desolate mood of ‘Der Wegweiser,’ and the hymn-like ‘Das Wirtshaus’ is expansively phrased, giving the song’s ethos a proto-Wagnerian depth. The dramatically alert elocution of ‘Mut!’ takes its strength from the performers’ organic musicality, the song’s expressive potency—undermined by many artists’ over-emphatic approaches—intensified by the singular metaphysical sagacity with which Tiliakos and Varvaresos convert the meaning of the text into sound. The stark imagery of ‘Die Nebensonnen’ is brought to disconcerting life by the baritone’s visceral singing: one practically squints at the blinding glare of the fraudulent suns of which he sings. In this performance, the hurdy-gurdy man of ‘Der Leiermann’ is not a terrestrial Charon demanding remuneration for passage to another plane of existence but a Delphic harbinger of a new reality. As elucidated by Tiliakos and Varvaresos, the narrator’s journey does not reach a tragic terminus: here, Winterreise is truly a cycle, an orbit through an ever-changing landscape scarred but not obliterated by loss and disillusionment.
Perhaps the most telling ambiguity in Classical Music in the Twenty-First Century is the contrast between the disheartening lack of civility among artists and the damning politeness of their work upon the world’s stages. When Giulietta Simionato’s Santuzza hurled tidings for a ‘mala pasqua’ in Turiddu’s face, the audience, whether in the theatre or listening at home, felt the blow down to the marrow of their bones. When Maria Callas’s Anna Bolena demanded justification of ‘giudici—ad Anna?’ from the hypocritical Enrico, she for a moment wore not costumes and rhinestone jewels but the martyr’s crown of the unjustly accused. When the Busch Quartet played the music of Beethoven, one listened not for particular notes or phrases but for whispered messages from the composer. Schubert’s Winterreise deserves this same level of commitment from those who perform it—and from those who hear it. The performance by Dimitris Tiliakos and Vassilis Varvaresos allows the listener to genuinely experience Winterreise. If the sonnets of Shakespeare, the canvases of El Greco, and the novels of Zora Neale Hurston could be condensed into seventy minutes of song, this Winterreise might be the result, but this Winterreise is a compelling work of art all on its own, a vision of humanity shared by three artists—Franz Schubert, Dimitris Tiliakos, and Vassilis Varvaresos—courageous enough to look beyond the façades of pretty fusions of music and text.