The Spectator, Sep 6, 2003
Michael Tanner
Schubert: Die Winterreise, Edinburgh, 16 August 2003
Edinburgh Festival 2003, 3
Queen's Hall
Apart from the two cycles of the Ring, all the opera in this year’s Edinburgh Festival was performed in concert, with some of the singers taking the opportunity to get in as much acting as possible – one would have been gratified to see an Ortrud as impassionedly active as Petra Lang in any fully staged version of Lohengrin; while others seem to have been content to walk onto the platform when required and off again as soon as they’d done their bit: all the singers in the thrilling account of Verdi’s Macbeth under the electrifying, and almost ubiquitous, baton of Sir Charles Mackerras.

Two singers who acted out their interpretations to an impressive degree were the tenor Jonas Kaufmann, one of Edinburgh’s most cherished annual visitors, and Simon Keenlyside, both of whom sang Schubert’s Winterreise in morning recitals at the Queen’s Hall, where, as usual, much of the most satisfying music-making of the Festival took place. Neither of these singers, whose performances were both of a kind which left no doubt that this cycle is not only one of the greatest musical works ever composed, but a stupendous drama, went in for elaborate gesturing or miming, but neither of them was content to stand in the curve of the piano and just make the odd movement. Kaufmann, who cultivates a romantic appearance and coiffure, looked a most plausible candidate for the lovelorn wanderer, very much a development out of the miller’s lad whom we saw him as last year in Die schone Mullerin. Even though the first song of Winterreise already laments the loss of love, this traveller set off at a fairly brisk tempo, with a spring in his step, aided by the superb accompaniment of Helmut Deutsch.

Wilhelm Muller, the poet of Winterreise, is often taken to task for the routine imagery of his songs, and for their lack of individuality. That quality, however, gave Schubert plenty of room for manoeuvre in setting them, and also, quite often, the chance to leave the quality, the emotional direction of them, vague, while contrasting some of them with others where the mood is established or homed in on with death-dealing precision. And broadly, for the singer, there is the opportunity to identify with the wanderer or to narrate his tale up to a point from the outside. Kaufmann took us with him on his journey, left us in no doubt where he was heading, and stood tormented before us. It was one of the greatest interpretations of the cycle I have ever witnessed, ranking with – to mention only the greatest – Hotter and Fassbaender, and tending to the latter’s eviscerating mode. Nothing in his progression was easy, and his last note, held for ages, was almost a scream. After the piano had its final chord, there was an immense silence, Kaufmann looking as if he could hardly believe what he had just put himself and us through; and then huge applause, with an element of relief that the ordeal was over. It will be interesting to see what impression the performance makes when it is broadcast on Radio 3.

Keenlyside’s account, coming two weeks later, was utterly different, and even more disturbing. It was hard to know when he came onto the stage with his regular accompanist Malcolm Martineau, also magnificent in his unity of intention with the singer, whether the diffident, self-absorbed figure we saw was the performer or the character he was about to incarnate. Since Keenlyside is a consummate professional, I take it that the manner in which he moved – slowly - into the cycle, virtually giving the impression that he might have to abandon it, was deliberate. At any rate, it created an electric atmosphere. Like Kaufmann, he used a vast dynamic range, but where the tenor’s voice has got notably deeper and fuller, Keenlyside nearly always took the chance to sing as softly as he could, sometimes almost murmuring his way through whole songs. And odd notes were sung in a Vickers-like head-voice, adding to the unsettling impact, and only just this side of the tolerable. Yet both he and Kaufmann kept all their most extravagant vocal effects within a legato line, so are parts of a new tradition, one hopes, of unexplosive Lieder singing, as opposed to the norm of the last fifty years. Keenlyside seemed improvisatory, sometimes abandoning gestures he’d just started making. Often minutes went past with hardly a glance at the audience; odd, and rare, smiles almost seemed unrelated to what he was singing. Madness decisively set in earlier than usual, though the uncompromising grasp of the worst truths about this wanderer’s position made it seem a superior state to that of the sleeping villagers he so gently mocked. By the end he had withdrawn from any inclination to communicate with anyone, and his last note was merely breathed out. Keenlyside seemed less relieved when his winter’s journey was over than bemused about where he was. I can’t believe I shall have another experience like this one.

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