International Record Review, April 2014
John T. Hughes
Schubert - Winterreise
Although there are fewer recordings of Winterreise by tenors than by baritones, there is always the question of whether another one of this cycle is needed, whatever the voice. One answer might he a decisive 'no', whilst a second could be that 'there is always room for more'. Specific to the disc at hand, the response should be 'yes, for it will enable the listener to hear how Jonas Kaufmann, so imposing and impressive in opera, tells the story of this particular winter journey his way'. He certainly has his views, as one appreciates on reading the conversation in the booklet in which Thomas Voigt asks both the singer and his pianist Helmut Deutsch about how they interpret the work: on one point they do not agree, but it is not one to affect their performance. It refers to the final song.

Deutsch questions whether the hurdy-gurdy man (in 'Der Leiermann') accompanies the wanderer on his journey, seeing it as a possibility rather than a certainty, whereas Kaufmann states unequivocally: 'I don't see the hurdy-gurdy man as a potential travelling companion but as a figure of the wanderer's imagination: he's like a madman talking to a ghost of a dead man.' Of course, there is also the more mundane meeting of the wanderer and a beggar with a hurdy-gurdy, with no other-worldly connotations.

Kaufmann, as anybody who has heard him in opera can confirm, has a wide range of colours and shades in his voice: essential attributes for a successful singer of Lieder and extremely important in telling the wanderer's account of his time after leaving his beloved. Self-pity there may be in the wanderer, but the descriptions of what he sees, both animate, like the crow in 'Die Krähe', and inanimate, the signpost in 'Der Wegweiser', should be searing if the singer is up to the mark in what has been described in print, The Record Guide (Collins; 1955), as 'the greatest song-cycle ever composed'.

The present recording must be one of the most internalized interpretations that I have heard: so much is sung in mezza voce. It would accord with Kaufmann's view of the hurdy-gurdy man as existing in the wanderer's imagination. Full voice is employed for contrast but in only two songs, the shortest, 'Der stürmisch Morgen' and 'Mut!', does Kaufmann turn to that fullness for the whole piece. After only two or three songs one realizes that this wanderer sees no resolution to his despair. The inwardness with which the two artists deliver 'Der Lindenbaum' gives way to weightier tones for the cold winds of the fifth verse. Contrast comes also in 'Wasserflut', begun very quietly. Similarly, in 'Auf dem Flusse' the full sound is held back until the wanderer questions whether a raging torrent flows.

Kaufmann's restraint in 'Der greise Kopf' becomes almost speech in the second stanza, while in 'Der Wegweiser' he all but whispers the ending. Deutsch has been working well with the singer, adding some subtle rubato in places. 'Irrlicht' is lightly done by both artists. In many quiet songs, Kaufmann virtually turns his use of head-voice into an art form of its own.

I think that after listening to a performance of Winterreise one should feel drained.'Das Wirtshaus' ('The Inn') always has an effect on me, for this particular place of rest is a graveyard. A threatening tear is often close when I hear the opening bars of this song, persuasively played here by Deutsch. Kaufmann's quiet delivery of the text is eloquently done. As for 'Der Leiermann', Kaufmann sings it as though the wanderer is watching the old hurdy-gurdy player from a distance, the question 'strange old man, shall I go with you?' being one of those unspoken thoughts that we all have. For Wolfgang Holzmair 'it is all over', which is how I read it too. We shall never know what the poet, Wilhelm Müller, thought of the ending, nor whether Schubert agreed with him, even if he was aware of Müller's ideas.

This performance by Kaufmann and Deutsch held my attention throughout: so restrained, so despairing, so understated but well stated. Deutsch says in the printed conversation that 'after a performance of Winterreise I can't simply carry on as usual, either as an interpreter or as a listener'. The recording is true to both performers, with no distorted acoustics. Named after the famous producer, the August Everding Saal in Grünwald is presumably a new venue. It is good that for once Sony Classical has supplied the texts and English translations of the songs, adding to the desirability of this latest recording of a powerful song cycle.

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