It’s ‘Die Winterreise,’ But Reimagined And (Up)Staged

Tenor Ian Bostridge portrayed the disconsolate protagonist of Franz Schubert’s song cycle ‘Die Winterreise,’ as recomposed and orchestrated by Hans Zender and staged by Netia Jones. (Photos: Hugo Glendinning)
By Susan Brodie

NEW YORK – The Mostly Mozart Festival continued its explorations beyond its original mission with Hans Zender’s extravagantly orchestrated “composed interpretation” of Schubert’s Winterreise, performed by tenor Ian Bostridge and the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) on August 12 and 13. The U.S. premiere of The Dark Mirror: Zender’s ‘Winterreise,’ in Netia Jones’ staging created for Bostridge, provided a fascinating but ultimately frustrating traversal of Schubert’s intimate and harrowing emotional journey.

Ian Bostridge, attired for wandering.

Schubert wrote Winterreise in 1827, just a year before his untimely death at age 31. Wilhelm Müller’s cycle of 24 songs is more than a young man’s saga, though it begins as the narrative of a youth disappointed in love who departs in self-imposed exile. Over the course of the cycle the winter wanderer strays into existential territory rarely experienced by twenty-somethings. It’s an interpretive Everest for singers who fall under its spell, and there’s a recorded version – or several – to please every taste. With 53 pages of listings on Amazon of recordings currently available, it’s possible to mention only a few. For many the iconic older versions are those of Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau and Gerald Moore. Fischer-Dieskau revisited the cycle every ten years or so, collaborating with Jörg Demus, Alfred Brendel, Daniel Barenboim, and Maurizio Pollini. Others prefer the larger-voiced Hans Hotter, also accompanied by Gerald Moore. Among today’s most prominent baritones, Matthias Goerne, Gerald Finley, and Christian Gerhaher have avid fans, while Mark Padmore and Jonas Kaufmann join Bostridge in the tenor wing. Although the narrator is male, a few women have taken up the cycle, and there are arrangements for instruments other than piano, even one for soprano and hurdy-gurdy.

Bostridge has been performing Winterreise for nearly 30 years, recording it with Mitsuko Ushida and Leif Ove Andsnes.  In 2007 he and Julius Drake created a filmed version – essentially a music video – directed by David Alden (viewable on YouTube) and documented the process in a making-of video called Over the Top with Franz. In his well-received 2015 book, Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession, he delved into the poetry in the cultural context of Schubert’s time. Such deep involvement with the piece made him uniquely equipped for this allusion-loaded reinterpretation.

Netia Jones’ staging recalled the machine aesthetic of 1930s Germany.

The evening began with a full blackout of the hall. As the audience adjusted to the darkness, a listener became aware of an intermittent, rhythmic shushing from a sand block, joined by the whispery, barely audible toneless pulsation of air blown into a horn. The sound grew as violinists bounced the wood of their bows against strings; pitch timidly joined the pulse, individually and then as a three-note fragment of the first song passed around winds and strings. The sound swelled into trumpet blasts and then died back, deconstructing the plaintive “Fremd bin ich” (I am a stranger) motif into the rhythmic crunch of feet on snow. The sudden entrance of a violin playing Schubert’s introduction in a polite string quartet version of the original piano part came as a shock, as the lights gradually revealed Bostridge sitting in a chair on top of a ramp spanning the rear of the stage.

Schubert would have recognized the straightforward rendition of the first two verses, which the tenor sang facing the opposite side of the stage. By the second stanza, though, winds and percussion added increasingly agitated interjections between vocal phrases. By the third strophe things had gone seriously off kilter, the singer interrupting himself, out of phase and in and out of key as if hallucinating. He shouted two lines of the quatrain over clanging percussion and trilling trumpet before lurching back to sing the last line sweetly, calmly. The final verse returned to an obviously unreliable “normal” rendition, accompanied with uneasy calm by strings and winds.

Behind the singer, panels of darkness sliced across the film screen, wiping out a previous image of machine gears. An accordion wheezed as softly rhythmic bow strikes faded into silence. Harp, guitar, wind machines, harmonicas, and percussion (four players out of the 24-member ensemble) added vivid color – now conventionally programmatic, now aggressively chaotic – to this winter’s journey. Bostridge trudged up and down the ramp, barely looking at the audience, against a background of frozen nature that alternated with abstract graphics.

Caspar David Friedrich’s ‘Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog.’

Zender’s expressionistic and dramatic approach is rooted both in his compositional aesthetic, with debts to Boulez and Bernd Alois Zimmermann, and to many years conducting opera in Germany. In an interview about his “Composed Interpretation” of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, Zender said, “My interpretation of Schubert’s Winterreise has at times been misunderstood. On the one hand, the idea arose that such a variation ought to be nostalgic; some traditionalists, on the other hand, understood it as violation of the original. Neither of these is correct, for my interpretation lies exactly on the centre line between these two possibilities.”

Zender broke the piece into four sections that developed distinct phases of the narrator’s inner journey from disappointment in love to contemplation of death. Each section began with a prelude based on the opening material of the section’s first song, played against a darkened stage. The narrator’s replay of his broken romance and his resignation to a life on the road rendered the songs in more intact form; Bostridge remained upstage and rarely looked at the audience as he obsessed over his story. In the second half, when Zender increasingly broke apart the original songs to reflect the wanderer’s deteriorating mental state, Bostridge came downstage to face the audience.

Director Netia Jones took Zender’s cabaret-like instrumentation and treatment of time as her point of departure for the black-and-white film projected throughout the work; this interspersed imagery of winter landscapes and close-ups of frozen branches with more abstract visuals invoking the machine art of Germany in the 1930s, with footage of Bostridge appearing later in the work as the narrator contemplates his mortality. Details referenced both Müller’s Romantic poetry (the Caspar David Friedrich moment when the tenor turned his back to gaze at the winter landscape) and Austro-German art movements like the machine aesthetic of the 1930s. Even the fonts used for projected translations drew on typography from avant-garde art publications of the period.

Ian Bostridge sang with his accustomed purity of tone.

It’s hard to imagine a better fit for this interpretation than Bostridge. Gaunt and charismatic, he sang with his accustomed purity of tone, adding an ironic edge to match Zender’s more expressionistic excursions. A slight roughness that crept into his timbre suited the world-weariness of the narrator. His usual physical mannerisms were channeled into directed action as he trudged across the stage, climbed a ladder, or crawled across the stage. For the final section, dressed in modern concert attire, he began “Täusching” (Illusion) standing at a music stand at the side of the platform. He began the song in an highly mannered fashion meant to parody a lieder singer, stumbling over his lines and shuffling through his sheet music until he tossed the pages to the floor. Images of the unlined face of the young Bostridge on the screen behind him were unexpectedly poignant, heightening the impact of texts that contemplated disappointment, despair, and death.

In a program note, Jones wrote, “It is a work of art about a work of art,” an exploration of Schubert’s realization of Müller’s romantic poetry at an expressive remove from the original – or at least that was my experience. As a listener I was fascinated by Zender’s sound palette and expressive artillery, and I appreciated the clarity Zender brought to the cycle’s structure. As a viewer I found the imagery evocative and stimulating. But I grew restless under a sensory onslaught which distracted from the emotional core of the work: the unmediated alliance of words and melody, the singer’s universal confession. I keep remembering another Winterreise I attended on the night of a blizzard, when half the audience couldn’t get to the concert and the pianist arrived late. The lucky audience was privy to a deeply felt, and deeply moving, baring of the soul.

Baldur Brönnimann ably conducted the 24 members of the International Contemporary Ensemble, who apart from a few fleeting brass bloopers played with taut energy and keen responsiveness to style shifts.

Susan Brodie writes about music, the arts, and life from New York City and Paris. Follow her at @Susan Brodie (Twitter) and Toi Toi Toi!