Alexander Campbell
Schubert: Die Winterreise, Edinburgh, 16 August 2003
Queen's Hall
On a rather warm day, Jonas Kaufmann and Helmut Deutsch treated a packed audience to Schubert’s most wintry and melancholy song cycle – Simon Keenlyside also gave one. Kaufmann’s Queens Hall recital of last year was one of the sensations of the Festival and his return was eagerly awaited.

It may have been the heat or the fact that Kaufmann’s voice and appearance are so Mediterranean and healthy that the cycle did not prove quite as engaging as it might otherwise have done. Winterreise is difficult to bring off in performance as it is far less programmatic that the other great Schubert cycles and there is no particular storyline running through the songs. This was perhaps one of the reasons why the cycle was so puzzling to the composer’s contemporaries.

Perhaps the singer could have introduced a little more feeling of gradual descent into melancholy or a sense of increasing desperation or urgency so as to prevent the songs becoming something of a litany.

Kaufmann had a lot to offer nonetheless. He sings with clear tone, unfailing musicality and with good control of dynamic and colour, and he has a direct and unmannered from of communication. He stands largely motionless and does not gesture much, which compels an audience to concentrate on the text and his expressive face; in a venue as intimate as the Queen’s Hall this pays dividends.

Kaufmann’s diction is superb and the text was beautifully inflected. Helmut Deutsch is an experienced player of these songs and the understated yet concentrated interaction between the two was impressive, each allowing the other pride of place as the text, tune or accompaniment demanded.

Some of the songs were extraordinarily well sung – in particular Erstarrung with its depiction of cold winter having replaced joyous spring, and solitude replacing love. Sung on a wisp of tone and with little vibrato this was great singing. Also successful was Auf dem Flusse for similar reasons, as the once rushing chattering wild stream flows silently as the poet watches and muses of past love. The pain and emotion within each of the songs was always present and each was characterised with variety on its own terms. What was sometimes missing was a sense of anger, particularly in songs like Der stürmische Morgen.

The cycle concluded with a truly haunting rendition of Der Leiermann with Deutsch providing a truly frosty depiction of the futile playing of the hurdy-gurdy man and Kaufmann exploiting the acoustic of the hall in a matching expression of despair. A suitably long pause was granted after the final chord had finished sounding before the audience applauded very enthusiastically.

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