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Franz SCHUBERT (1797 - 1828)
Winterreise, D 911 (1827)
see end of review for track listing
Natalie Stutzmann (contralto), Inger Södergren (piano)
rec. September 2003, Rundfunk Haus Berlin, Kleiner Sendesaal.
no texts or translations enclosed
SAPHIR LVC1153 [76:21]

Experience Classicsonline


Female singers have only occasionally tackled Schubert’s greatest song-cycle, but those who have, usually have been able to convey deep insights - sometimes shedding new light on some of the songs. The first woman, to my knowledge at least, to adopt Winterreise was Elena Gerhardt, who sang it from the late 1920s and also recorded eight of the songs. Lotte Lehmann recorded the majority of the songs for two different companies in the early 1940s. Christa Ludwig and Brigitte Fassbaender performed and recorded the cycle to great acclaim. My wife some fifteen years ago heard another German mezzo-soprano, Doris Soffel standing in for an ailing Thomas Hampson.
 
Now here, in an eight-year-old recording, come French contralto Natalie Stutzmann and Swedish pianist Inger Södergren with a reading that challenges all of those mentioned and many of the best male interpreters as well. The recording was originally issued on Calliope but it obviously slipped by without my noticing it. Thus it is a blessing that it has been restored to circulation by Saphir.
 
Let me address the sole drawback at once, and it has nothing to do with the music-making. It is my old obsession: the lack of song texts! Jaded collectors must have multiple versions of the poems - and translations - and younger readers, who might be inspired to acquire their first recording of this ever fascinating work, needn’t worry too much. A visit to the local library or a quick search on the internet should set things right. Why not following this link and get the complete German texts with English translations - easy to follow. Then you can just sit down in front of your speakers and inhale the atmosphere, the moods, the colours, the chill, the despair, the final resignation.
 
When setting off on a journey, in particular in unfamiliar surroundings, it is a great help to have an experienced guide, but not one who has told her story too many times and has become blasé. She must know every yard, every bend, every little detail but have the ability to relate her story as though it was her first visit and that she is just as curious and expectant as the people she is guiding. Natalie Stutzmann is that kind of guide, well-informed but full of enthusiasm. By her side she has her assistant guide, Ms Södergren, who interposes her own comments, stresses a detail and points out: ‘look at that’ ... A radar pair, indeed!
 
Natalie is the possessor of a true contralto voice, warm, rich in colours, beautiful and with a myriad of nuances. She also has power to make the more dramatic songs tell. Less attractive to some listeners may be a slightly ‘hooty’ quality. Sometimes the tone hardens at forte but all this pales and becomes insignificant when everything else is so right. As can be concluded from the previous paragraph she sings off the words and catches the moods without sweeping gestures. She is a wonderful narrator who also happens to have a marvellous singing voice.
 
‘Without sweeping gestures’, I wrote, and this is an important distinction. Some guides like to take command, to force the information on the listener; Ms Stutzmann invites the listener to take part and carries through her narration in a low voice, reflective, thoughtful. The whole story, all twenty-four songs, are knit so closely that it feels almost blasphemous to point out certain songs, certain details; the cycle as Natalie Stutzmann and Ingrid Södergren have conceived it should be heard in its entirety and not piecemeal. To give some clue to my admiration I would still urge readers to sample a few songs - just to be caught by the deeply considered reading:
 
Start with probably the best known of the songs, Der Lindenbaum (tr. 5): it is warm and inward initially but the dark clouds that descend over the middle section are almost frighteningly wintry. Then go to tr. 11 and another song often heard separately: Frühlingstraum. It opens so lightly and airily but this is deceptive: the darkness of the present soon obscures the memories of spring. Here rubato is expressively employed in a way that, isolated, would be regarded as self-indulgent - listen to the last stanza! In this reading the rubato is an integrated part of the whole and feels absolutely right. It leads over to a deeply emotional Die Einsamkeit (tr. 12) - gloomy but beautiful. I read somewhere that here, halfway through the cycle, some singers in the past used to stop. The second part seemed too bleak and forbidding. After the lively and deceptively jolly Die Post (tr. 13) the journey goes inexorably downwards. The pain, the distress grows deeper and this is mirrored superbly in Stutzmann’s facial expressions. I know, this is not a DVD, but I can still sense every variation in her face, nowhere more so than in Das Wirtshaus (tr. 21). It is sung - and played - so movingly and every word is uttered with the utmost effort - every word hurts. Nobody can possibly be unmoved when listening to this song in isolation, but the impact is far stronger when it is heard as part of the whole cycle.
 
In the concluding two songs, Die Nebensonnen (tr. 23) and Der Leiermann (tr. 2 (tr. 24) we meet a naked soul, everything is over, the voice falters ... This is the most self-exposed depiction of the eternal winter, where the narrator is doomed to suffer.
 
I have listened to uncountable performances of Winterreise, many of them exceptionally good, but none has touched me as much as this one. It is, by some margin, the Recording of the Month and will be one of my Recordings of the Year as well.
 
Göran Forsling 

Masterwork Index: Winterreise

Track listing
1. Gute Nacht [6:14]
2. Die Wetterfahne [1:45]
3. Gefrorne Tränen [2:31]
4. Erstarrung [2:46]
5. Der Lindenbaum [4:41]
6. Wasserflut [4:31]
7. Auf dem Flusse [3:44]
8. Rückblick [2:27]
9. Irrlicht [2:44]
10. Rast [3:25]
11. Frühlingstraum [4:43]
12. Die Einsamkeit [3:11]
13. Die Post [2:19]
14. Der greise Kopf [3:03]
15. Die Krähe [2:31]
16. Letzte Hoffnung [2:02]
17. Im Dorfe [3:02]
18. Der stürmische Morgen [0:50]
19. Täuschung [1:31]
20. Der Wegweiser [4:12]
21. Das Wirtshaus [5:26]
22. Mut [1:24]
23. Die Nebensonnen [2:48]
24. Der Leiermann [4:31]

 


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