Monday, 21 December 2009

Alternative Winterreise

If a piece of music is powerful, artists will want to express how it affects them. In principle there's no reason why good music shouldn't be staged as artists, dancers and theatre people have just as much right to engage with a piece as singers and pianists.Meta-performances aren't a substitute by any means, but can help us appreciate how someone else responds. Think of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and her hospital bed staging of Bach. She sang with extra poignancy as there was so much death in her personal life she needed to deal with. So what she did was creative.

Winterreise has inspired dozens of responses, good and bad. You don't want to see Brigitte Fassbender dressed up as a nun, surrounded by Beidermeier peasants, however well she sings (yes, it exists). But Simon Keenlyside's Winterreise with choreographer Trisha Brown sparked off new ideas for me. Keenlyside is an athlete (now married to a ballerina) so he has physical presence. In this production, he didn't dance but it was very physical, the semi-invisible dancers around him formed a kind of net which caught him when he fell. It was like he was trusting in fate - he didn't "see" the dancers but they stopped him from crashing to the ground and pushed him ever onwards. Just like the landscape in the cycle.

There's also a film of Winterreise with Christine Schäfer and Eric Schneider, which many admire passionately. I haven't seen it myself but can understand why it's such a cult, it's edgy and uncompromising. I love the audio version, which I think is a different and better performance. because her high, bright soprano brings out the eerie quality of light in the music extremely well. She sounds shockingly vulnerable and yet sharp - chilling and totally in accord with the music. Indeed I can't recommend this CD too highly. It reveals aspects of the cycle no-one else comes close to expressing. Sure, it's not the usual butch male thing, but it "needs" to be heard to bring out levels of Winterreise not usually accessed.

Years ago when Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake were fairly malleable they got talked into filming the cycle with David Alden. Alden had very definite ideas, and even judicious editing can't hide the fact that he and Bostridge/Drake didn't feel comfortable with them. This was filmed in a Victorian lunatic asylum. At one stage Bostridge writhes in a straitjacket. "Let me out of here!" his eyes seem to plead. He's got good ideas of his own, far less limiting than the "psycho" scenario around which tis film predicates. It's Alden's vision, Bostridge and Drake are just extras.

Another unusual one, which I haven't seen either but heard about from others. Winterreise mixed with The Sorrows of Young Werther, two great classics of Romantic despair. The singer is Erik Nelson Werner. Very demanding role esp. as it means switching modes, adding to the sense of disorientation.

There's also been a Black Theatre of Prague version, where a disembodied voice and piano do their thing while fleeting images in black and light flicker on the stage. I know there's at least one ballet but can't remember at this moment - prompt please? And there's Hans Zender's orchestration, with Ensemble Modern, which was a good experience live because some of the musicians move about in the hall, like a ragged village band. Better than it sounds, but not quite so interesting on audio. Everyone who listens has a different perspective (which changes all the time). So exploring alternative Winterreises is like listening to someone telling you how they feel about it. It may not be the same as what you feel, but to say "never!" is like saying, never listen to someone else's opinion. Though sometimes you get Fassbender dressed as a nun.

1 comment:

alecnathan said...


I'm a theater director in New York collaborating with a couple of composers on a theatrical explosion of Schubert's "Winterreise" song cycle, and thought it was worth alerting you, given your other "Winterreise" posts. Our show, "Three Pianos," runs Feb. 25 - March 20 at the Ontological-Hysteric Theater in the East Village.

If you get a chance, check out a video of our stomp version of Schubert's "Die Kraehe":

We also have a version of Schubert's song "Die Post":

Certainly, not all of the songs are going to be as irreverently transformed, but we thought that our more dour selections wouldn't inspire people to rush to the theater. . .

Some more info about the show is here:

All the best,
Alec D.