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Journeys en route to spring

MUSIC | Four new renditions of Franz Schubert’s Winterreise


Journeys en route to spring
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What better time to plunge into Franz Schubert’s oft-recorded 1827 song cycle Winterreise (“Winter Journey”) than winter? Four 2023 renditions in particular offer the initiated and the uninitiated alike new reasons to listen.

But, first, a few words on the 24 lyrical Wilhelm Müller poems that Schubert set. Emblematic of the Romantic state of mind, they document less a physical journey (although external landmarks come into play) than an emotional and psychological one, one that will be instantly familiar to anybody who, like Müller’s speaker, has ever been stunned into introspection by lost or unrequited love. When not included in the cover booklets, serviceable-to-good English translations can be found online.

Two recordings on the Leipzig-based Genuin label enrich the pieces’ textures by replacing the piano with other instruments. On Schubert: Winterreise, the violin, viola, violoncello, and English horn of the Grundmann-Quartett supply the ­baritone Florian Götz with accompaniment that’s less frosty but no less austere. The quartet is especially adept at evoking the winds that toy with the weather vane in “Die Wetterfahne” and wax tempestuous (“cold and wild”) in “Der stürmische Morgen.” An arrangement of the Andantino movement from Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A serves as an intermission.

On Winterreise, the accordionists Uwe and Heidi Steger, and the 56-voice GewandhausChor, create foils of a ­different kind for the baritone Tobias Berndt. The choir functions both as a ghostly chorus (in the Greek-drama sense) that speaks for those who’ve undertaken similar winter journeys before. And the accordions, which are used sparingly, add a fittingly Schubertian bohemian touch.

The Hungaroton label’s Franz Schubert: Winterreise by the tenor Zoltán Megyesi and the pianist Balázs Fülei distinguishes itself by presenting the songs not in their customary order (the one in which Schubert became aware of them, more or less) but in the one that Müller himself published the poems. Whether, as Megyesi and Fülei contend, this “original” sequencing “intensifies the dramatic power of the songs” or simply redistributes that power in suggestive ways is a subjective call, but the listening involved in trying to make that call has its rewards.

Most imaginative—and most ­bohemian—by far is the Winterreise, arranged for jazz band and voice, by the singer Iris T. (that is, Träutner) and the Hans Zinkl Quintet. Besides changing the point of view from a man’s to a woman’s (a subtle but not insignificant shift), the revisionism includes transforming “Der greise Kopf” into a pensive instrumental.

A motific gentle swing, however, keeps pensiveness to a minimum. The result is a Winterreise more wistful than bleak—a Winterreise, in other words, with hints of spring.


Arsenio Orteza

Arsenio is a music reviewer for WORLD Magazine and one of its original contributors from 1986. Arsenio resides in China.

@ArsenioOrteza

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