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Ian Bostridge
19 Apr 2011

Ian Bostridge, Wigmore Hall

The most remarkable aspects of this fresh, illuminating performance of Schubert’s Winterreise by Ian Bostridge and Mitsuko Uchida were the masterly control of dramatic form and the insightful, quite original, shaping of emotional content.

Franz Schubert: Winterreise

Ian Bostridge, tenor; Mitsuko Uchida. piano. Wigmore Hall, London, Thursday, 14 April 2011.

Above: Ian Bostridge


In previous incarnations, Bostridge’s Romantic wanderer has been a woeful, weary figure, made wretched and emotionally drained by life’s cares and the loss of love. Here, guided by Uchida’s rhythmically charged, honest utterances, he was an altogether more self-determining journeyer, at times despairing, elsewhere angry, but even in moments of confusion and anxiety, always self-aware and self-possessed.

The rhythmic momentum of the strumming chords which open ‘Gute Nacht’ (‘Good night’) drew us immediately into a narrative which seemed to have begun long before, and a bitter energy underpinned the icy clarity of ‘Gefrorne Tränen’ (‘Frozen Tears’) and ‘Erstarrung’ (‘Numbness’). But, in the central poems, as the dark currents which well up from the traveller’s desperate wandering and his own tortured imagination plague and afflict him, a new reticence was sensed, apt for the beleaguered mood. The pensive restraint of ‘Irrlicht’ (‘Will-o’-the-wisp’) and ‘Frühlingstraum’ (‘Dreams of spring’) intimated that the wanderer had succumbed to reverie and fantasy, but this was challenged at times by a growing acknowledgement of his own delusion, in ‘Einsamkeit’ (‘Loneliness’) and ‘Der greise Kopf’ (‘The hoary head’). In the latter half of the cycle, the performers exploited Schubert’s sparser textures and greater economy of means (together with fewer textual repetitions) to develop a powerful concentration and angry passion as the wanderer is brought by his own inner thoughts to the brink of suicide.

Contrast and clarity were the touchstones of this interpretation; in this regard, Uchida painted the canvas, and determined the colour palette, upon which Bostridge spun the tale. Juxtapositions of major and minor were tellingly shaped. The piano accompaniment welled from subdued pianissimos to assertive pronouncements, sensitive to the singer’s need to project the text but always an active player in the musical and narrative argument. The reticent opening of ‘Wasserflut’ (‘Flood’) gave way to the strong, assertive bass line accelerating at the conclusion of ‘Auf dem Flusse’ (‘On the river’), symbolic of the ‘raging torrent’ beneath the surface. Discarding the pedal in ‘Rast’ (‘Rest’) Uchida’s sparse, raw accompaniment served to intensify the singer’s final outburst — ‘You too, my heart, … you feel stirring in this stillness/ the fierce pangs of anguish!’; and the delicate ornamentation of the following song, ‘Frühlingstraum’, remained tempered by the dry coldness of the preceding song, climaxing in a subdued ardency, the modulation to the minor tonality denying hope of resolution to the singer’s urgent question: ‘When shall I hold my love in my arms?’

Bostridge too made much of every opportunity for contrasting timbres and hues, intensifying the aching yearning in ‘Wasserflut’ to convey the young man’s ‘burning anguish’, before adopting a wonderfully soft piano as the ‘ice breaks into fragments/ and the soft snow melts’. Creating a magical veiled quality in ‘Einsamkeit’, he relished the chromatic anguish of the wanderer’s struggle, ‘I go on my may/ with dragging steps.’ Here, Uchida retreated to allow the text to come through in all its abject honesty: ‘While storms were still raging/ I was not so wretched.’

Each song had its striking, and sometimes surprising, features. The staccato punctuations of ‘Gefrorne Tränen’ seemed to undermine the wanderer’s hope that, springing from his heart with such fierce heat, they ‘would melt/ all the winter’s ice’; and this was further confirmed by the despairing diminuendo at the conclusion of the subsequent ‘Erstarrung’: ‘My heart seems dead, her cold image numb within.’

In Müller’s poems, natural symbols and natural events are used to explore man’s relationship with Nature, and thus such symbols are both literal and metaphorical. Uchida powerfully conveyed this simultaneity in ‘Der Lindenbaum’ (‘The linden tree’). Having adopted a fairly slow tempo for this song, the piano’s sudden blast of ‘cold winds … full into my face’, which dislodge the wanderer’s hat and disturb his illusory peace, was powerfully evocative. Similarly, Bostridge demonstrated a startlingly affecting lower register in ‘Der greise kopf’, suggesting the distant depths of the silent grave to which the wanderer travels.

A troubled urgency marked the concluding songs, initiated by the staccato accompaniment of ‘Letzte Hoffnung’ (‘Last Hope’) and propelled by the tempestuous diminished triads shared by voice and piano in ‘Der stürmische Morgen’ (‘The stormy morning’). The barking dogs and rattling chains took on a distinctly sinister air in ‘Im Dorfe’ (‘In the village’), as the performers exploited every emotional resonance in Schubert’s contrasts of major/minor tonality and register.

A burnished gravity characterised ‘Der Wegweiser’ (‘The signpost’); well-placed ornaments and sprightly dotted rhythms in the piano were undermined by the hushed vocal timbre and final acknowledgement that there is but one road that must be travelled: ‘from which no man has ever returned’. Bostridge’s bitter resignation was overwhelmingly powerful here, yet he resisted the temptations of emotional excess, maintaining a restrained, eerie quality in ‘Das Wirthaus’ (‘The inn’), for his avowals, ‘I am weary, ready to sink,/ wounded unto death’. Uchida, however, was unwilling to allow passive surrender and the piano postlude injected a fresh resolution and brightness, leading into the forced bravado of an impetuous ‘Mut!’ (‘Courage!’). The contrast of melodic confinement and harmonic yearning in ‘Die Nebensonnen’ reached a touching conclusion in the repeated interrupted cadences which convey the wanderer’s melancholy admission of defeat: aware that the ‘best two’ suns are now lost, he still longs, ‘If only the third would follow’. Yet, the performers continued to interrogate and explore the music and text, and a startling icy anger pervaded the doom-laden final song, ‘Der Leiermann’ (‘The organ-grinder’).

In a letter of 1822, Müller wrote: “My songs lead but half a life, a paper life of black and white … until music breathes life into them, or at least calls it forth and awakens it if it is already dormant in them.”* Bostridge and Uchida certainly awakened the ‘dormant’ music in these texts. Never overly complex or angst-ridden, never compromising the simplicity and directness of verse — its ‘black-and-white-ness’ — they depicted the bleak journey of an outcast wanderer with poignancy but without sentimentality. A moving and enlightening performance.

Claire Seymour

*G. Johnson (1997), CD booklet for The Hyperion Schubert Edition, vol.30: Winterreise (Hyperion CDJ33030), p.4.

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