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Ian Bostridge [Photo by Hugo Glendinning]
14 May 2016

The Dark Mirror: Zender’s Winterreise

From experiments with musique concrète in the 1940s, to the Minimalists’ explorations into tape-loop effects in the 1960s, via the appearance of hip-hop in the 1970s and its subsequent influence on electronic dance music in the 1980s, to digital production methods today, ‘sampling’ techniques have been employed by musicians working in genres as diverse as jazz fusion, psychedelic rock and classical music.

The Dark Mirror: Zender’s Winterreise

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Ian Bostridge [Photo by Hugo Glendinning]


Is Hans Zender’s Winterreise (1993) part of the same trend? After all, it might be described as a sort of polystylist mix of one the sacred icons of the classical repertoire, in which the spirit of the nineteenth-century German lied is fused with echoes of other musical ‘voices’ as diverse as Mahler, Weill, Berg, Berio and even Michael Nyman. Now, to this musical synthesis director Netia Jones has added a visual complement, creating ‘The Dark Mirror: Zender’s Winterreise’, which is being staged in the Barbican Theatre by tenor Ian Bostridge and the Britten Sinfonia, conducted by Baldur Brönnimann.

Schubert’s Winterreise has inspired responses — musical, artistic, theatrical — of many shapes and forms. In March 1996, tenor Martyn Hill and pianist Andrew Ball performed the song-cycle within an installation conceived by Christian Boltanski and directed by Hans Peter Cloos at the Opéra Comique in Paris. Artist Mariele Neudecker, working with baritone Andrew Foster-Williams and pianist Christopher Gould in 2003, used Schubert’s songs as the basis for a compilation of 24 short films — each of which existed as both a live performance and gallery version — using locations along the 60th parallel north. In the same year, choreographer Trisha Brown populated Schubert’s cycle through a ballet in which baritone Simon Keenlyside both sang and danced.

Among many re-instrumentations are Liszt’s transcriptions for piano solo, and the solo violin studies created in the 1880s by Richard Sahla from three of the cycle. Zender, though, does more than transcribe or arrange: his ‘composed interpretation’ deconstructs Schubert’s original while sustaining a meticulous analytical engagement with Schubert’s score. The composer/conductor described how his Winterreise makes use of ‘the liberties that all composers intuitively allow themselves: the slowing or quickening of tempi, the transposition into different keys, and the revealing of more characteristic and colourful nuances’ while all ‘possibilities remain subject to compositional discipline’.

While the vocal line is more or less intact — though fragmented by stops and starts and some spoken delivery — the songs are given expanded introductions and postludes (which Zender equates with practice of the great pianists at turn of century of ‘improvising small bridges between the different pieces they performed during a concert’), and new counterpoints which build harmonically and melodically on Schubert’s original. Zender creates a sonic narrative through instrumentation which includes prominent percussion, including wind and rain machines, and eclectic orchestral voices — oboe d’amore, soprano saxophone, guitar, harp, harmonica, accordion. These are theatrically deployed, though the onomatopoeic effects — mimicry of howling dogs and clattering chains (‘Im Dorfe’/In the Village) and the stormy winds (the dislocating rhythms, harmonies and percussive battery of ‘Der sturmische Morgen’/The Stormy Morning) — wear a little thin.

The first and last songs are subjected to the most radical transformations, prefatory and concluding respectively. ‘Gute Nacht’ opens with a prolonged soundscape — precisely and delicately performed by the members of the Britten Sinfonia — in which tentative sound-gestures emerge from silence, the col legno tappings cracking like desiccated twigs and fracturing ice. Accordion and guitar add what Zender calls ‘archaic references’, but with the entry of the voice, the Romantic string timbre evokes the cultural richness of the Biedermeier era. Despite such sensitive evocation, though, I missed the obstinate, enduring tread of Schubert’s piano which both initiates this particular winter journey and seems to resume an everlasting cyclic venture upon which we are all embarked.

Zender’s orchestral story-telling is vivid and Brönnimann’s attentiveness and care was impressive. The explosiveness of marimba and trombone in ‘Irrlicht’ (The Will o’ the Wisp), was matched by the astringency of ‘Erstarrung’ (Numbness) and the virtuosity of ‘Die Post’ (The Post). Rhythms and registers were exploited effectively. The coincidence of the horn with the vocal line triplets in ‘Wasserflut’ (Flood) was slick and urgent, while the high trombone melody in ‘Aum dem Flusse’ (On the River) voiced the tension felt by the singer who, overcome by exhaustion, has surrendered song to spoken text.

Brönnimann demanded unwavering restraint from his players and Bostridge was never required to force his voice above the instrumental textures. But the conductor pointedly communicated harmonic and temporal arguments. In ‘Rast’ (Rest) the strange, disorientating harmonic twists extended Schubert’s own arguments between major and minor tonalities, while in the subsequent ‘Frühlingstraum (‘Dream of Spring’) — where a flood of light was suggestive of the hallucinatory intimations of the text — the comforts of the harp were overcome by the sleep-shattering cock-crow of the horns, an acceleration forcing the wanderer to abandon his nostalgic reminiscences and push on along the wintry path. In ‘Mut!’ (Courage), the wanderer’s false renewal was constantly undermined by harmonic disintegration and divergence; phrases lurched between different keys, and jarring returns to the ‘home key’ evoked the pathos of futility.

Reflecting on Zender’s ‘re-composition’ I was struck, in fact, by the score’s conservatism. When one thinks of the playful, innovative deconstruction and collage of the past in works such as Lucas Foss’s Baroque variations (1967), Berio’s Sinfonia (1969), Andriessen’s Anachronie I and II (1966/69), Arvo Pärt’s Credo (1968) and Schnittke’s First Symphony (1969-72), one might anticipate a more discomforting contact zone between 1820s Vienna and more modern times. But, then, Zender’s lack of ironic distancing is perhaps refreshing.

Moreover, the concept of ‘staging’ Zender’s work is inherently present; for the composer included ‘stage directions’, which even instruct the orchestral members to move: ‘Another possible extreme I make use of is the shifting of sounds within the room […] Musicians themselves are made to travel, sounds ‘travel’ through the room, even outside the room, and such interventions into the original text highlight the poetic idea of individual songs’.

Here, the Britten Sinfonia stayed seated, and we ‘travelled’ through Bostridge’s embodiment of the literal and psychological journey, and Jones’s cinematic complement and accompaniment. I confess that, having recently endured Tal Rosner’s projections to accompany Britten’s ‘Sea Interludes’ from Peter Grimes — performed ‘next door’ in the Barbican Hall in March — I had some misgivings.

In the event, Jones’s images were not distracting or abstractly theoretical as I had feared, but neither did they add much and there was little to surprise: the Will-o’-the-Wisp was conjured by clouds of light which blossomed and then dissolved into a black expanse. Adopting a chiaroscuro default mode, which at times faded to an obliterating blankness of white or deepened to a consuming agape of black, Jones offered us shadows, superimpositions and slashes: criss-cross lacerations of gnarled bark barred the wanderer’s way and intimated a splintered psyche. The journey is both geographical and mental, and bleak wintery scenes were the backdrop for montages of Bostridge’s visage, the agonies of hopeful youth countered by the gaunt realism of disenchanted age: ‘I thought I was an old man already’ … ‘And I’m horrified by my youth’ (‘Der greise Kopf’/The Old Head).

English translations of Wilhelm Müller’s poetry were projected within the images and in her programme article Jones explained the choice of typeface, which in German, ‘more than in most other languages’, is ‘fraught with politics and subjectivity’. Two Grotesque (an early san serif typeface that emerged in the early 19th century) fonts were employed: Akzidenz-Grotesk, released by the Berthold Type Foundry in Berlin in 1896 and Grotesque No.9, use by the British Vorticists in the magazine BLAST which was published just twice, in 1914 and 1915. I allow that in the darkened Barbican Theatre it was impossible to read the texts printed in the programme, but I found their intrusion into the projected images diverted the eye from the visual and aural signals which are sufficient to communicate the words’ meaning and inference.

And, so to the performance of Ian Bostridge. As the singer himself commented in a pre-performance article in the Guardian newspaper: ‘I’ve approached this extraordinary work from all sorts of angles. I’ve sung it “straight”, in halls all over the world, dressed in concert gear. I’ve made a TV film of it with the director David Alden, broadcast in 1997, the year of Schubert bicentenary. I’ve recorded it with the Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes. I’ve dramatised it with the pianist Julius Drake, on the vast stage of the Teatro Comunale in Florence, under the direction of Roberto Andò. Most recently, I’ve written a book about it, Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession. And here I am, returning to it again, at the Barbican. Obsession indeed.’

Dressed in immaculate evening dress, Bostridge initially conjured both the extravagance and expressionism of the Weimar Republic. But, seated aloft on an unforgiving chair at the raised end of a high, sloping platform he cut a figure both baleful and alien: trapped in utter, impenetrable loneliness. Then, at the mid-point in Schubert’s cycle, he discarded formal wear for more dishevelled attire, moving to the ‘dark mirror’ of the black, glossy forestage.

Far from bringing us closer to the distressed wanderer, this reorientation plunged him deeper into an existential hinterland. In ‘Krahe’ (The Crow), Bostridge curled inwards on the ground and courtesy of Jones’s images we viewed this vulnerable, huddled figure from the perspective of Ted Hughes’s Hawk — ‘fly up, and revolve it all slowly —/ I kill where I please because it is all mine’ — as the singer anxiously exclaimed, ‘It has flown above my head’, while the shadows of flapping wings flickered on the cowered form: ‘ Are you planning soon to get hold of my body as your prey?’

‘Täuschung’ (Delusion) triggered a disturbing attempt to regain equilibrium. After a fragmented instrumental prelude, the orchestra introduced a gentle lilt — ‘a light does a friendly dance ahead of me’ — while Bostridge, once more in evening dress, struggled to right a music score upon a stand — a desperate attempt to re-establish sanity through the rituals of musical performance.

I may have been mistaken but it seemed to me that the pace of many of the songs was a touch slower that I am used to hearing from Bostridge. ‘Lindenbaum’ (The Linden Tree) and ‘Mut!’ in particular seemed to drift more wistfully. And, I felt that the less urgent tempo and the expansion effected by Zender’s supplementations lessened the sense of narrative and psychological momentum and inevitability; that we were not increasingly sucked into the wanderer’s own psyche but remained in an observer’s domain, our understanding of the protagonist’s pain filtered through Jones’s visuals.

Reviewing Bostridge’s performance of Winterreise with Thomas Adès at the 2014 Aldeburgh Festival, I wrote: ‘while [Bostridge’s] characteristic range of vocal colour, from bright lyricism to gritty accentuation, and textual meticulousness were much in evidence, this performance had something different, and new: a sense of introspective estrangement and repressed bitterness which was not released until the final songs when the emotions finally surged in an outpouring of disillusionment and wrath, before exhaustion overwhelmed all other feeling.’ In this performance there was not the same sense of dissolution, carthartic or destructive, for Zender’s timbral and motivic expansion of ‘Der Leierman’ (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man) contradicts the dry harshness of rejection which infuses Schubert’s original.

Overall, Bostridge was more withdrawn and introspective than in his concert hall performances: the text was rendered with his distinctive deep expressiveness, but the heightened, sometimes violent, intensity which has characterised his more recent performances of Schubert’s cycle — and which so startles and challenges, as the singer colours a line with a rasping timbre or howl of pain — was absent here. There was a more gentle prevailing lyricism. Perhaps the singer judged that the instrumental colours and visual images added their own nuances which did not require, or leave room for, vocal paroxysm, idiosyncrasy or hyperbole? That said, this was an incredibly sensitive rendition, and Bostridge was as insightful when communicating through Sprechstimme or spoken text as he was when melodising.

When the tenor reprised his Aldeburgh performance with Adès a few months later at the Barbican I wrote, ‘Bostridge sings with his whole body and soul, and — lurching clumsily, leaning languidly or exhaustedly on the piano, his stance by turns hunched then bold — he seemed at times the epitome of adolescent suffering and defiance. […] one might say that this was less a musical performance than simply theatre — a sung dramatic monologue.’

Reflecting on this issue of ‘theatricality’, it seems to me that Zender’s composition raises many interesting issues relating to the nature of the musical ‘work’ and to questions of ‘interpretation’. He has professed to have merely developed features that are ‘only latent in Schubert’ but has admitted ‘that no interpretation can ever be really true to the original’: ‘each note in a manuscript is primarily a challenge to action and not an explicit description of sound.’ I am struck by Zender’s development of this idea — that the ‘creative effort, temperament and intelligence of the performer, as well as the sensitivity formed by the aesthetics of his or her own time, are necessary to create a lively and exciting performance’ — for The Dark Mirror seems to leave little room for the idea of the ‘performer as creator’; no space for the singer to ‘interpret’.

Following the 2015 Barbican Hall concert noted above, I remarked: ‘Bostridge has performed Winterreise over 100 times. His interpretations, with different partners and in different contexts, have evolved, as have his musical priorities, and indeed his voice itself. […] After this performance — spell-binding, persuasive and utterly bleak — it is hard to imagine how much further Bostridge can take Schubert’s wanderer? Perhaps he has reached the end of the journey …’

Perhaps I should now amend that to ‘personal and private’ journey, for Zender’s palimpsest seems to have offered Bostridge another path to tread.

Claire Seymour

Tenor — Ian Bostridge, Conductor — Baldur Brönnimann, Britten Sinfonia. Barbican Hall, London. Friday 13th May 2016

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