Does Schubert’s Winterreise need to be illustrated? Not when a superlative interpreter like Matthias Goerne sings it. Voice and piano suffice to recreate the journey of the abandoned lover across an indifferent, frozen landscape. But pianist Markus Hinterhäuser, who is also general director of the Wiener Festwochen, thought of inviting versatile South African artist William Kentridge to add a visual dimension: 24 animated films to accompany the 24 songs in this summit of Romantic lieder composition. Kentridge chose not to illustrate Wilhelm Müller’s poems in a literal way, but, like the heartsick wanderer, embarked on a journey of his own. The result is a singularly memorable Winterreise. 

Kentridge’s trademark animations, in black-and-white with occasional colour accents, are painstakingly created by a process of drawing, smudging, erasing and redrawing, and include simple but enchanting effects such as flipbooks and animated handwriting. It can take him a whole day to produce 10 seconds of film and the layers of charcoal, cutouts and shadows are texturally rich and move organically. Prompted by themes in the Winterreise such as walking, memory, and the inability of landscape to retain memory, Kentridge selected films he had made for other purposes and added new material. All the films are connected to the text by association. Sometimes it is a shared cultural association, such as the beautiful tree veining the sky shadowing Caspar David Friedrich’s painting “Tree of Crows”. Then there are Kentridge’s personal associations to his own life and homeland. The crow in “Die Krähe” is a sub-Saharan ibis, and, towards the end, the tree becomes a gruesome reference to South Africa’s violent past.

The images are also linked to the songs rhythmically; they move to the music, becoming paper windmills in the gusts of “Der stürmische Morgen” (Morning Storm). In one of the most eloquent fragments, snow made of black paper confetti swirls to the nervous rhythm of “Erstarrung” (Frozen), forming transient images. We see drawings of Kentridge himself walking and dancing across the pages of a dictionary. Letters materialise, threatening to form words, but melt away immediately. Even if you do not fully comprehend the text, Kentridge seems to be saying, the music knits sensory and emotional connections, fleeting, but sketched in memory. A couple of the animations have such a strong narrative that one stops consciously listening to the music. One of these is “Memo”, projected during “Im Dorfe” (In the Village), in which a man at a desk tries to control the minutiae of his life, which keep defying him in the form of runaway rubber stamps and incontinent ink. At other times the images blend perfectly with the poem, such as the rotating pianola or hurdy-gurdy rolls during “Gerfror’ne Tränen” (Frozen Tears), the swift slats of light doubling for tears, mourning the ephemeral quality of both music and time.

Moving sparingly and deliberately in front of the projection screen, baritone Matthias Goerne sometimes entered the film, as in “Wasserflut” (Torrent), when his shadow stood in a bathroom having a shower. Goerne's singing impressively combines uncompromising legato with flawless diction, but it is his red-hot dramatic intensity that makes his Winterreise indelible. He sings with his whole body, bending, swaying, leaning over the piano, with ironclad vocal control. Without making eye contact with the audience, he creates a centre of tension on stage that is impossible to ignore, video projection notwithstanding. His voice, while not conventionally lovely, is dense and complex of colour, all cognac and soft leather, and is equally penetrating in expressing sweet recollection and black despair. His tortured traveller certainly wallowed in his emotions. “Der Wegweiser” (The Signpost) was longingly sung, like a love song to loneliness. But there was also reflection. Goerne sometimes took very slow tempi, as in “Der Lindenbaum” (The Linden Tree) and “Der greise Kopf” (Grey Hair), seeking not only to feel with maximum intensity, but also mulling over his feelings, considering the next step in the journey. On the piano, Markus Hinterhäuser took a decidedly subordinate role and followed Goerne’s lead in phrasing and pacing. He played poignantly rather than prettily, even in nostalgic extracts such as the dream of Spring in “Frühlingstraum”. The fleet-fingered passages were not always spotless, but he beautifully replicated the tired trudging in the snow and the heaviness of heart in the measured rhythms.

Goerne and Kentridge’s journey ended in a promise of possibility. During “Der Leiermann” the singer stood in the middle of the stage and firmly decided to join the hurdy-gurdy man on the road, while a procession of graceful silhouettes in an African landscape flowed behind him. The stoical hurdy-gurdy man was not a harbinger of death, but another signpost, a personification of the unstoppable progression of time, life, and music. Then the procession, the playing and the singing stopped. Only their memory remains. But what a memory!