Classical Review: A young man's journey

Ian Bostridge Sings

Schubert's `Winterreise'

Wigmore Hall, London

Sung by a tenor rather than a baritone, Schubert's song-cycle sounds still more exposed, more skeletal. On Wednesday night at the Wigmore Hall, Ian Bostridge eschewed any sentimental vibrato, he also reined in the dynamics and enforced a rapt, increasingly intense intimacy. The singer and his expressive accompanist, Julius Drake, enhanced this by maintaining continuity within groups of songs. The performance was marked by the partnership between the performers.

Drake was master of all Schubert's illustrative writing - from falling tears to the posthorn - but he also risked anarchy in the unusually fast, dangerous wildness of "Die Wetterfahne", thinned the piano texture to evoke moonlight in "Gute Nacht", and then chilled it to portray ice. In the postlude to "Das Wirtshaus" he expressed the courage that the singer had summoned during the song.

Bostridge drained colour from his voice to become his own ghost in "Der Lindenbaum" but also relished the naive freshness of love's "spring dream". He knows how to turn the thinness of his lowest register to advantage. The special beauty of his singing is that it fuses the disembodied with the sensuous, to chill as well as thrill. It's what made his Quint in the Royal Opera's recent Turn of the Screw so disturbing.

The poet Wilhelm Muller called his cycle "The Winter Journey"; in dropping the definite article, Schubert turned anecdote into exemplar: this is our "Winter Journey". For once, this Winterreise mapped a young man's experience, when it has often been appropriated by singers at the end of their career. Yet Wilhelm Muller was only 30 when Die Winterreise was first published complete - the same age as Schubert was at the song-cycle's first performance in 1827.

The journey takes us from the past, from a hot, happy May, to bitter, cold isolation, redeemed only by music itself. The singer leaves his beloved in the first song; in the last, he encounters a beggar outside the town, barefoot on the ice, playing a hurdy-gurdy, unaccommodated, incompetent, disregarded. The singer asks the musician to accompany his songs. Graham Johnson memorably interpreted the encounter as Schubert's anticipation of living death - syphilis had been diagnosed five years earlier.

On this occasion, to my ears, the encounter sounded less unambiguously bleak: it was given an unexpectedly numinous, Wordsworthian quality by the nuance of warmth with which the singer addressed the beggar as "wunderlicher Alter" - strange, wonderful old man. The awe Bostridge expressed, we experienced, for one who keeps going.

Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake give a second performance of their `Winterreise' at 8pm on Wednesday at the Wigmore Hall, London W1 (0171-935 2141)

Channel 4 will be broadcasting two films about the Bostridge/ Drake `Winterreise' on Sunday 28 December: David Alden's dramatisation of the song-cycle at 1.05pm and a documentary based on Ian Bostridge's performance diary at 7pm

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