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La Mer Ticciati
Cantatas for Soprano
RECORDING OF THE MONTH
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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828) Winterreise, D 911 (Op. 89)
Bo Skovhus (baritone)
Stefan Vladar (piano)
rec. 2016, Liszthalle Raiding
Sung texts with English translations enclosed CAPRICCIOC5291 [66:37]
After admirable recordings of Die schöne Müllerin (review) and Schwanengesang (review) Bo Skovhus and Stefan Vladar now completes the trilogy with Winterreise, and having a distinct recollection of the previous recordings, the approach of this last instalment comes as no surprise: tempos on the fast side, a wide pallet of nuances, strong contrasts, dramatic intensity and deep involvement combines with expressive handling of the texts. Some five years ago I reviewed a recording of Winterreise with tenor John Elwes (review) that made a deep impression on me. His was an intensely personal approach, where he wrung every drop of feeling out of the music and the texts in an expressionist manner. It was at times so naked and uncovering that it became almost unbearable to listen. Bo Skovhus and Stefan Vladar are peering just as deeply without sacrificing the beauty of tone quite as much as John Elwes did. But just as with Elwes this is not a comfortable journey – but it catches you from the beginning and keeps you hooked until you stand there exhausted, barefoot on the ice, beside the hurdy-gurdy man.
The opening Gute Nacht is fast and eager, the accompaniment urges the singer on, but he sings wonderful legato, not the bumpy four-square semi-staccato that mars Hermann Prey’s readings. And to whom is he saying good night? We get to know that at the end of the song, when he softens his voice and becomes intimate: “Dear sweetheart … / I’ll not disturb your dreaming /it would be a pity to spoil your rest / You’re not to hear my footsteps / Softly, softly close the door / As I go past I’ll write / ‘Good night’ on your gate / So that you may see / That I have thought of you.” The last line is repeated so softly and inwardly. Immensely touching. Die Wetterfahne is stormy, frightening, as is the third song, Gefror’ne Tränen, where unfortunately the English translation has been replaced by the translation for the third song of Die schöne Müllerin. There is panic and pain in Erstarrung – and also vulnerability. Then comes a moment of repose when the wanderer remembers the linden tree, where he carved so many words of love in its bark. Skovhus sings it so softly and beautifully. But it darkens, he has to go on walking, the pain returns “The cold winds blow” – near panic again. The stillness of the opening returns: “Now I am several hours’ journey / Away from that place.” He finds comfort. Wasserfluth is filled with sorrow and longing, Auf dem Flusse and Rückblick are intense and the piano accompaniment in the latter is almost orchestral in its mightiness. Ad isn’t there a streak of self-pity?
When we come to Rast there is a sense of resignation, but still he is defiant. There is a streak of light when he dreams of spring in Frühlingstraum, but it is soon shattered by the reality around him. He still sees flowers – but they are ice on the window panes! The sorrow in Einsamkeit – “Alone, without a word of greeting” – is so graphically depicted in Skovhus’s voice. Die Post brings a last glimpse of hope, but “he brings no letter from you”. And still it comes from the town “where once I had a dear sweetheart”. This song is the turning point. From here on resignation is the over-riding feeling. Der greise Kopf: “How far it is still to the grave!” Die Krähe: “Faithful to the very grave”. Letzte Hoffnung: “Weep, weep on my hopes’ grave”. The emotions are expressed with such intensity. Im Dorfe: “I have finished with all my dreams”. Der Wegweiser is the last turning-point: “I must travel a road along which / No-one has ever returned”. After this Shakespearean statement the struggle is over; he has reconciled himself to his fate, and the last four songs are almost serene. Skovhus sings them simply and beautifully. Die Nebensonnen heart-rending – but without sentimentality: “I shall be happier in the darkness”. And meeting the hurdy-gurdy man he has reached the end of the road: “Strange old man / Shall I go with you? / Will you turn your hurdy-gurdy / To my songs, too?”
Skovhus and Vladar’s Die schöne Müllerin and Schwanengesang were really great achievements. Their Winterreise is tremendously good. Their collective involvement is so strong that it carries over to the listener through so neutral a medium as a CD and a couple of speakers with almost visual effect. I was so overwhelmed by their reading that it took me a long time to get back to normal again. I suspect that most readers with an interest in art songs already have at least one recording of Winterreise. However good that recording is, I urge you to listen to Skovhus and Vladar as well. It will almost certainly give you new insights and new perspectives about this inexhaustible song cycle. No single recording can give the whole truth about it, but this gets as close as possible.