One of the finest I have heard
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Franz SCHUBERT (1797–1828) Winterreise Op. 89, D. 911 (1827)
Johan Reuter (bass-baritone) Copenhagen String Quartet (transcription for string quartet by Richard Krug)
rec. June 2014, Operaen, Copenhagen
Sung texts enclosed DANACORD DACOCD759 [76:00]
Yet another Winterreise! Is there room for one more on the market? Can this one compete with the legendary greats? YES! There is room for it! It is competitive! Firstly: Winterreise is such a marvellous cycle that you always return to it with pleasure. Secondly: I have more than thirty recordings of it and not one is bad. And I have heard it in live performances many times and not one was bad. It seems that this work inspires singers to bring out the best of themselves. Of course it is possible to have one recording of Winterreise and be fully satisfied with that. It took many years before I added another to my first Fischer-Dieskau, but when I did I realized that different singers find different things in the songs—and that also enriches my experience of them.
Regarding this latest addition, it stands out from all the others in one specific respect: it is the first where the piano is replaced by a string quartet. And this makes a difference. It is the same as watching a photo of a beautiful scenery in black and white and then see it on a colour photo. A good pianist with a good piano can conjure forth fifty shades of grey, yes, even more, but the string quartet brings forth other nuances as well. And not even the most masterly pianist can produce a seamless legato to challenge what a string group can do. Take the opening of Winterreise. The intro to Gute Nacht is always a bit bumpy in the piano version, while the strings level the bumps. Whether this is good or bad is another question, but it makes a difference and it makes you sit up and listen. It is a new perspective. In this case Johan Reuter draws the consequences of the different approach and sings Fremd bin ich eingezogen, Fremd zieh’ ich wieder aus with a smooth soft legato. Right or wrong? In the next song, Die Wetterfahne, the wind plays with the weathervane and the tremolo strings illustrate this graphically. In the third song, Gefror’ne Tränen—frozen drops are falling down from my cheeks—we hear the frozen tears falling in the string accompaniment. “At the well by the gate there stands a linden tree, I dreamed in its shadow many a sweet dream”. Müller’s idyll becomes even more wrapped up in a rosy shimmer with the help of the strings in the first stanza of Der Lindenbaum and Reuter’s legato singing is extremely beautiful.
I could go on and point to many instances of expressive word-painting or dramatic underlining of situations, but let me just highlight two more situations. Frühlingstraum gets in this version a ländler-like Viennese lilt. One can almost imagine a Schrammelquartett in the background, although this of course is an anachronism. And in the last song, Der Leiermann, the fateful atmosphere is enhanced by the strings imitating the hurdy-gurdy.
The sum of all this is a fascinating journey in a wintry landscape where the grayscale is complemented by shades of, let us say, blue and brown and in the retrospective songs—Der Lindenbaum, Frühlingstraum—lighter colours. I am sure some listeners will react negatively to this modernisation, while others, like myself, will feel that this is an attempt to regard the songs from a somewhat different perspective but with full respect for Schubert’s intentions.
So much for the accompaniment. The singing is of course even more important. Johan Reuter is a serious artist who would not dream of making something gimmicky of Die Winterreise. He is Danish, and has been a soloist at the Royal Danish Opera since 1996 in a large repertoire. But today he is in demand all over the world, in particular as a Wagner singer. Just a few months ago I heard him as a magnificent Holländer in Helsinki. From the first song in the present recording I was reminded of another great Wagnerian who also was a masterly Lieder singer: Hans Hotter. Reuter has the same timbre and the same darkness of tone, and like his legendary predecessor he can scale down his big instrument to chamber size. I have already mentioned his superb legato singing, and time and again during my listening sitting I jotted down on my pad “restraint”, “careful and expressive”, “touching’”, “deeply gripping”. The last notation concerned his marvellous reading of Die Nebensonnen, the penultimate song of the cycle, where death approaches. In Celia Sgroi’s prose translation it reads:
I saw three suns in the sky,
Stared at them hard for a long time;
And they stayed there so stubbornly
That it seemed they didn't want to leave me.
Ah, you are not my suns!
Go, look into someone else's face!
Yes, recently I, too, had three
But now the best two have gone down.
If only the third would also set!
I will feel better in the dark.
But as a Wagnerian Reuter can also wring the last drop of drama out of the texts—and the last desperate joy in Die Post. But he soon realizes: “The post does not bring a letter for you”. To my ears he never puts a foot wrong. I was at first a bit dubious about his tempo in Wasserflut. But I checked the timings of the song on some 28 recordings and Reuter at 4:26 is far from extreme. The fastest was Lotte Lehmann (3:25) followed by Brigitte Fassbaender (3:47). The slowest by some margin was Siegfried Lorenz (5:19)! Reuter is somewhat below the average but not much, and I believe it was his marvellous legato singing that fooled me to believe it was too slow.
So here we are with a very special recording of Die Winterreise, worthy to rub shoulders with Hüsch, Hotter, Fischer-Dieskau, Bär and Goerne. I repeat that the string quartet accompaniment may not be to everyone’s taste, but the playing of the eminent Copenhagen String Quartet is beyond criticism, and the arrangement by the quartet’s cellist Richard Krug is skilled, inventive and does in no way violate Schubert’s intentions. I urge every Schubert enthusiast to give this disc a listen. You will not regret it!