For decades, Portland, Oregon’s Chamber Music Northwest has been, under the leadership of clarinetist David Shifrin, an oasis of cultural excellence. It is an artistic level that the new co-artistic directors Gloria Chien and Soovin Kim, are striving to preserve. The most recent recital, part of the CMNW’s 51st (online) season was entirely devoted to an artistic pinnacle of the Biedermeier era: Franz Schubert and Wilhelm Müller’s Winterreise.

Julius Drake and Fleur Barron
© Alex Barnes

This remarkable performance’s background was brought to light during the brief discussion between the two interpreters right before starting their recording session (in the cozy space of the Razumovsky Academy in London). Julius Drake, one of the greatest and most experienced vocal accompanists of our time, wanted to know what made the talented young mezzo Fleur Barron to be so adamant in her effort to bring this project to fruition. The singer admitted Winterreise “had no appeal” for her three years ago, but explained how later she suddenly became “completely obsessed, falling in love with the music, its simplicity, but also the immediacy of its emotions”. What exactly triggered that change of heart we did not find out. On the other side, Drake commented on “all the new things that become apparent” upon returning to magnificent music “that takes a life of its own each time”. And so, having collaborated before, a singer interpreting the cycle in public for only the fourth time and a pianist that has performed it on innumerable occasions with some of the greatest singers of today, performed a rendition of Winterreise that sounded very fresh indeed.

Originally composed for a low tenor or a high baritone voice, the cycle has been tackled before by both mezzos and (rarely) sopranos, even if the lyrics provide a male perspective. Barron and Drake mentioned the key transposition they had agreed upon, balancing the need for the singer to be in her vocal comfort zone and “evoking a state of being, of what the character is going through during the song”. 

Julius Drake and Fleur Barron
© Alex Barnes

Despite Drake’s steadying presence, always sustaining the voice and carefully outlining every detail, this was not an immaculate performance. Deep and mellifluous, especially in her lower register, which found new inflections on repeated phrases, Barron’s voice suffered the occasional rasp. From the second song, Die Wetterfahne, accents were exaggerated, phrases had too many edges. The diction battle with German consonants and composite nouns was not always easily won.

Yet, the biggest question mark was about the overall approach. For most admirers of Müller’s stanzas and their astonishing musical settings, Winterreise is not so much about denial, but about acceptance. The unnamed wandering protagonist has already been defeated by a cruel fate before the first song. In the first dozen songs, moments of revolt (such as Rückblick) are rare. Most of the images are about frozen tears (Gefror'ne Tränen), frozen streams (Auf dem Flusse), and petrified nature and soul. It is always “cold and dark”. The energetic mezzo was challenged in conveying these bleak feelings. The second half of the cycle, with its rapid changes of mood, is full of the same desolation and melancholy. Despite a heartfelt “Wie weit noch bis zur Bahre! / How far it is still to the grave!”, Barron, declamatory in most of her pronouncements, seemed to have difficulties acknowledging that, no matter how much the hero fights against solitude or dark thoughts, the grave is indeed getting closer.

However, dressed in an asymmetrical, black-and-brown outfit, barefoot, Barron imbued her singing with such a remarkable intensity that she easily kept her public captive for more than an hour. It was an evening that was not easy to forget. And isn’t that the most desirable attribute of a performance?


This performance was reviewed from the Chamber Music Northwest video stream

***11