Friday, 18 December 2009

A Winterreise Adventure

Last night I didn't just talk Winterreise, I lived it. Just as we left James Gilchrist's recital at Kings Place it started to snow. Atmospheric, since it hardly ever snows in London.

"You call that snow," sniffed my Siberian friend. But we get excited because it only snows (or slushes) maybe once every 5 years and last year was the first serious snow for 20 years. So cheerfully we set forth. As soon as we reached the motorway, out of the dark came a sudden blizzard, which dropped 20cm of snow in 90 minutes. Because no-one is used to such conditions, it was mayhem.The wind howled like in a typhoon, except that it was freezing, throwing sheets of snow against the windscreen. Complete whiteout. Passing a big crash on the other side (4 cars 1 truck) we decided to call it quits, and as soon as we could left the car which couldn't go up a hill, and walked the rest of the way.

Scary as this journey was, it was a good experience. Everyone knows the words, but what is the deeper sensation? A singer I knew once walked across the country carrying a backpack, giving Winterreise recitals along the way. It made him feel the music more because he'd struggled on the way. For me, the blizzard made me feel how we take things for granted. The man in Winterreise looks at familiar landmarks, but they're no longer what they were.

Snow absorbs sound, but just as it deadens background hum, it lets details spring out in stark contrast. One of Jorma Hynninen's recordings captures this effect. He sings quietly, mutedly, yet sharpens certain passages : the black crow against white clouds, pregnant with snow. The post horn sounds over long distances because it doesn't blend into the background.

Snow transforms. Part of my journey went through an industrial slum, but now it was covered with a pure, white blanket. Even the metal barriers and dustbins looked magical. The man in Winterreise's feelings are painful because they're raw. As he proceeds, they change. By the end, the girl is left behind in more ways than one. Even in his deepest anguish, the man sees beauty in the landscape around him. Listen to that piano part, the images of water! Beneath the frozen ice, the river surges. Melting droplets trickle, sharp figures sparkle, like icicles. Once I heard Imogen Cooper play Winterreise so magically, it made you "feel" the cold, the dark and the flashes of light. Wolfgang Holzmair seemed to be listening, taking in what nature might have to tell the man, even though he can't quite understand.

Landscape as a mirror of emotion: an aspect of Winterreise often overlooked when we focus on the pain and intensity. As James Gilchrist said before the concert, the protagonist goes through a huge range of feelings, from bitter anger to lyrical tenderness. And in this performance, with Anna Tilbrook as pianist, he certainly showed the range of feelings involved.

Landscape in the Romantic imagination is also part of meaning. Sometimes the song Die Nebensonnen has been dismissed as evidence that the man on the journey "must" be insane because he sees three suns in the sky and relates them to his lover's eyes. On the contrary, in extreme cold, the light of the sun can refract, so it appears as multiple images. I chose this photo because it captures the way the sun in dense blizzard conditions glows with an unnatural brightness: the glare can make you snowblind. It's a natural phenomenom, but hyper real and piercing. So what, then, does the Leiermann signify? Is he an illusion or a real beggar, feral, like the deer whose tracks the man follows in the beginning. This aspect of interpretation can impact on performance.

And snow can be dangerous. Someone was supposedly killed in the accident I passed. If the man in Winterreise was bent on death, all he had to do was lie under the Lindenbaum and the cold would soon lull him forever. Significantly, he passes the graveyard and goes beyond. Maybe the man does die, or go mad, but one surprising aspect of the cycle is that he chooses to keep moving on, even though it wouldn't take much effort for him to let the snow end his troubles.

As for the recital? Thoroughly satisying! Gilchrist doesn't have one of those lusciously creamy voices that draw attention to their own beauty at the expense of the music. If it's not a glorious instrument, though, he uses it intelligently, so you're drawn to what the music might mean. There are hundreds of Winterreises to listen to, but Gilchrist makes his personal and direct.

Someone told me that this concert was being recorded for CD. The acoustic at Hall One at Kings Place is so perfect that it's a disadvantage. It's so clear that it can expose all but the best. Yet, because the hall is small, the biggest names don't often appear. So using Kings Place for making recordings offers benefits to audiences and gives recordings a nice "live" ambience.

Please see my other posts on Gilchrist, Schubert and Kings Place
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