25 Jul 2018

Angelika Kirchschlager's first Winterreise

In the opera house and on the concert platform, we are accustomed to ‘women being men’, as it were. From heroic knights to adolescent youths, women don the armour and trousers, and no-one bats an eyelid.

Similarly, men are often the voice of choice in female roles where an element of strangeness is to the fore, such as Birtwistle’s Snake Priestess (The Minotaur) and Britten’s Madwoman (Curlew River). Theatre, too, is gender-neutral these days, and Glenda Jackson can be King Lear just as Mark Rylance can become Cleopatra.

But, what of the recital hall? Where the solo lieder singer has no dramatic role to embody and where the poet so often seems to have identified intensely with the poetic persona for whose voice the singer is an expressive conduit?

I put this question to Austrian mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager, before her performance of Schubert’s Winterreise at Middle Temple Hall , with pianist Julius Drake. She sensibly pointed out that in the opera house, the travesti roles make a positive and essential contribution, androgyny being integral to the dramatic and musical design, and also to the ‘entertainment’. But, art song is not entertainment: it is both delicate and powerful; it forces one to reflect on and to integrate ideas and emotions; it issues challenges of a political and personal nature. “There is always something humming beneath the surface.”

I wondered if, while we are unperturbed by a woman embodying, say, the lovesick travelling journeyman in Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen or Schubert’s Ganymede, there is something unique about Winterreise, Wilhelm Müller’s poems being too ‘confessional’ to permit the crossing of gender lines? Angelika explained that she believes Winterreise communicates human experience, rather than an explicitly male or female perspective. She described the song-cycle as “a journey to the inside of a human being”, a spiral ever deeper into loneliness as the male persona becomes increasing cut off from the world, unable to find his place, ever more lost. “A man or a woman can do that journey.”

And, why not? Female singers including Elisabeth Schumann, Lois Marshall, Christa Ludwig and Brigitte Fassbaender have all performed or recording Winterreise. After thirty years of singing opera and lieder, and ten years of teaching, Angelika hoped that it would come up some day. “It is the ultimate challenge in lieder. A complex masterpiece for which I have so much respect.” The exploration of the cycle’s psychology and parameters is obviously something that the mezzo-soprano has relished.

When I questioned whether a male singer could sing Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben, Angelika replied, “No. Because the songs communicate uniquely female experience. No man can ever know what it is to love as a woman, to marry, to become a mother.” Schumann’s songs tell of a woman’s daily life, whereas in Winterreise only the first song, ‘Gute Nacht’, is connected to the real world, and through the rest of the cycle the persona travels ever further into nature and away from people.

Angelika told me that she feels the influence of Schubert’s own life experiences in these songs - practical problems arranging concerts, with women, money, illness - and that the cycle expresses feelings of helplessness about where life can go. She also believes that the winter traveller’s journey into isolation and introspection has begun long before the first song commences; that he had suffered before, and that the cycle resumes a long process of separation. “Why is he leaving? We don’t know and can only speculate. But, I try to keep out lament; not to cry unless it is in the songs, and to focus on other emotional aspects. He is rushing away, and he just keeps on going.” Interestingly, Angelika remarked that after more than a year of learning the song-cycle, she felt that she was getting into the mind of a man, encountering problems which she recognised from the experiences of men whom she knew.

I was surprised when Angelika revealed that she has never heard Winterreise performed live before, and I asked her how she has been preparing for her own first performance of the cycle. She listened to recordings of single songs - “thinking about how creative I could be,” she said, with a laugh - and then explored the texts, looking for connections between Schubert’s harmonies and the texts. Schubert’s textual annotations were comprehensive, and she commented, “you don’t have to do anything, just find out what Schubert wants to tell us”. As she advises her students, if you just sing what you feel, it will be your music but not the composer’s.

We discussed some of the practicalities such as the choice of keys and transposition. Angelika’s choices are entirely her own, drawing on the original version and those for medium and low voice. She carefully considered the connections between songs, asking herself whether she wanted progressions to seem “weird” or natural, whether to retain links or to break them. Having gone through numerous sets of possibilities, changing the key relationships over and over, she has settled on her fifth version!

We talked, too, of vocal technique and colour, and Angelika emphasised that the absence of contrast between the chest and head voice for women has a marked effect. Schubert may have written a particularly high passage for tenor, anticipating the softness and colour of the head voice, and so a woman’s performance will inevitably be different. I raised the matter of the ‘distance’ between the vocal line and piano, the former higher in pitch than usual, and the latter lower as a result of the transposition, and Angelika reflected that perhaps this increases the sense of the traveller’s alienation and loneliness.

I wondered whether the close proximity of the audience at Temple Church presented challenges, but Angelika laughed again: “I like the audience close! I’ve sung in venues where they’ve been much closer. It means the audience cannot escape! I don’t want to sing in a dark auditorium where the audience are anonymous: they must be part of it, they are 50% of the evening.”

At the end of our conversation, Angelika spoke with passion. “There can never be a right or wrong Winterreise. There are simply always more aspects of the cycle to explore and each new interpretation is a positive contribution to the work’s life. A ‘solution’, there can never be. But the essential thing is to be faithful to the music and that will ensure that the singer is faithful to Schubert’s genius.”

With such thoughts in mind, I settled into the pew at Temple Church and listened to the urgent but light tread of Julius Drake’s piano introduction to ‘Gute Nacht’, and was immediately struck by this traveller’s intensity: the fixity of Angelika Kirchschlager’s stare as she seemed to reach for a distant point, beyond the horizon, was riveting. There was steely purpose, here: ‘Was soll ich länger wellen/ Bis man mich treib’ hinaus?’ (Why should I wait longer for them to drive me out?) pushed forward, with defiant determination. There was tension and turbulence too - in the unruly trembling of Drake’s weathervane in the following song, and in the traveller’s heart - but in these opening songs it was restrained, almost repressed, occasionally retreating into numbness, or, as in the final stanza of ‘Gefrorne Tränen’, momentarily relaxing and finding warm release: ‘Als wolltet ihr zerschmelzen/Des ganzen Winters Eis’ (As if you would melt/All this winter’s ice).

Dreams of ‘Der Lindenbaum’ transported the traveller far from the present, but the tenderness of the vision only emphasised the vulnerability of the voyager. This was less a ‘narration’ than a drama, as Kirchschlager communicated emotion openly and directly. Though her artistry was ever evident, the mezzo-soprano seemed to render these art songs into pure feeling, almost folk-like in their honesty, often singing with little vibrato and using vocal heightening and nuance with care and thoughtfulness. Flashes of brightness - passion, anger, pain - were thus all the more telling. The slow tempo of ‘Wasserflut’ suggested the traveller’s ‘lostness’, though the heatedness of the burning tears reminded us of his anguish; Drake’s tip-toeing accompaniment in ‘Auf dem Flusse’ took us deeper into a dream-scape, before we were wrenched back to reality by the traveller’s agonized questioning as he gazes into the stream at the close of the song - ‘Ob’s unter seiner Rinde/ Wohl auch so reißend schwillt?’ (Is there such a raging torment beneath its surface too?) - the agitation spilling over into restless ‘Rückblick’ (A backward glance).

It was the lurch in Drake’s skittish accompaniment at the start of ‘Irrlicht’ (Will-o’-the-wisp) which signalled a shift to a darker, dangerous psychological landscape. Ironically, the terrible unfulfillment of the traveller’s searching was communicated by Kirchschlager’s beautifully warm lower range and her effortless transitions between registers. She seemed to physically inhabit the tiredness of ‘Rast’, though Drake’s steady accompaniment was cruelly impassive; the sudden freshness and vigour of ‘Frühlingstraum’ (Dream of Spring), was troubled by deep, unpredictable currents. Always the tension was kept in check, though the threat of disintegration seemed ever imminent, and contrasts between the lassitude of ‘Einsamkeit’ (Loneliness) and the frantic haste of ‘Die Post’ were disquieting. The delicacy of the close of ‘Der greise Kopf’ was frightening, and it was no surprise when it was shattered by the piano’s tormented circlings in ‘Die Krähe’ (The crow).

‘Letzte Hoffnung’ (Last hope) followed segue, another irrevocable staging-post on a journey into existential solitude. The final songs accrued a gripping dramatic force, which relaxed slightly as Kirchschlager lightened her voice to capture the hallucinations of ‘Täuschung’ (Delusion) but then exerted its grip as she hardened the sound to convey the traveller’s obsessive intensity in ‘Der Wegweiser’ (The signpost): ‘Eine Straße muß ich gehen,/ Die noch keener ging zurück.’ (One road I must travel, form which no man has ever returned.) The arrival at the inn (‘Das Wirthaus’) seemed to bring some comfort and relief, but the courage of ‘Mut’, as the vocal line flashed with fire, bordered on madness and the low piano bass in ‘Die Nebensonnen’ (Phantom suns) seemed to draw the traveller ever deeper into his own obsessions and fixations. The encounter with ‘Der Leiermann’ offered no solace: subdued, still, the music and the traveller seemed to slip away, elsewhere.

The sustained focus and intensity of this performance of Winterreise was astonishing and almost hypnotic. During our conversation, Angelika had been keen to point out that this is first time that she has performed Winterreise, and that her interpretation will undoubtedly develop. The next stop is the Vienna Staatsoper, where she and Julius Drake will perform the cycle in October. This is just the beginning of her own musical journey.

Claire Seymour

Angelika Kirchschlager (mezzo-soprano), Julius Drake (piano)
Temple Church, London; Tuesday 24th July 2018.