The birth of Schubert’s Winterreise song-cycle was suitably poignant. Wilhelm Muller humbly declared that his poems needed music to infuse them with life, but died unaware that Schubert was turning them into a libretto.
Schubert himself only had months to live when he sang the work to his friends, who were shocked by its morbidity. But morbidity on this exalted plane needs no excuses: Samuel Beckett regarded it as one of the greatest artistic statements of all time. In this simple story about a jilted lover, Schubert’s treatment of Muller’s intricately elaborated metaphors becomes a profound examination of the human condition.
Several notable voice-and-piano partnerships have recently recorded it, tenor Mark Padmore and pianist Paul Lewis prominent among them: so popular is their version that the Wigmore has put it on twice in one week. But the demands of this music are formidable. Some songs pass like angry gusts of wind, some have the somnambulistic poise of a dream, and some are disturbingly surreal. The piano must both thunder and weave the most delicate spells, often in the same song. The singer must run the gamut of emotions, from rage and defiance to the most heart-rending suicidal submissiveness.
The first song - Gute Nacht – is normally taken at an even, graceful pace, but Padmore turned it into high drama, while Lewis’s sound was big and heavy; all this set a pattern. Padmore’s emphatic vocal style – ranging from a raucous snarl to a wispy semi-falsetto - didn’t seem as appropriate here as it is in Bach; he switched so regularly between pianissimo and fortissimo that one tired of the device, and he never found the conversational tone which some of the songs require. It all had a mannered feel, as though he was going through the motions, rather than communicating emotion.
Only in the last five songs did they hit their stride. Padmore sang The Signpost as though mesmerised, and delivered The Inn – a graveyard which turns him away because it’s full – as though he had already died; the final song - The Organ-grinder - emerged in powerfully original form. But there are better fish in the sea. For expressive beauty, listen to Christian Gerhaher and his pianist Gerold Huber (Arte Nova), and for an ideal vocal-instrumental balance, try James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook (Orchid Classics).