Traditionally, holiday entertainments are heartwarming affairs, reassuring audiences of basic human good will. This makes Schubert’s Winterreise an oddball: it clearly belongs in winter, but it treats of post-breakup depression and isolation – hardly uplifting topics. Ian Bostridge’s delivery of the cycle for Cal Performances was lonely indeed. Bostridge’s vocalism and Wenwen Du’s piano playing were exquisite, but Bostridge's inability to physically project his emotions kept me from entering the narrator’s inner world.

Ian Bostridge © Sim Canetty-Clarke
Ian Bostridge
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

The sound of Bostridge’s tenor and his variety of vocal effects stun. His tone is warm and honeyed, particularly in his upper range. As a tenor singing a cycle often associated with baritones, he uses Schubert’s pre-publication manuscript keys, which are higher than the published version for many songs. He’s still clearly reaching for the lowest notes, but overall he makes a strong case for the suitability of Winterreise as tenor repertoire. At his most lyrical, Bostridge spins endless streams of sound with a steady, seductive legato. He’s not afraid to introduce choppiness, emphasized gutturals, and even harsh shouts into his singing for dramatic effect. His vocal toolbox also includes explosive changes in volume and drawn-out slides between notes. His forced crescendo on the last word of the last song (“drehn” in Der Leiermann) was almost painful in its intensity.

Bostridge has a deep understanding of Winterreise: he wrote a book on the cycle. He makes interesting, informed choices in his delivery. He takes long pauses between some songs, and not even a split second for breath between others. Tempos range from breakneck (the start of Rückblick) to an agonizing crawl (Das Wirtshaus). He delivers several pieces (including Die Wetterfahne and Die Post) sardonically, a choice I found heavy-handed but defensible. More problematic is Bostridge’s lack of stage presence. He sways and wanders, never standing still for more than a line or two. He turns from side to side and hunches over the piano. He largely keeps his gaze directed at the floor or his eyes closed. All of these mannerisms are expressive of feeling, but they’re isolating. They avoid connection with the audience. Bostridge has found plenty of emotion in Winterreise, but he keeps it for himself and leaves us cold.

Wenwen Du © Wenwen Du
Wenwen Du
© Wenwen Du

Wenwen Du and Bostridge were well-coordinated, in expression as well as timing. They played off of each other, sometimes matched in harshness or gentleness and sometimes contrasting banging on the piano with restrained singing, or elegant playing with ragged vocals. Schubert’s piano writing for Winterreise is less orchestral than onomatopoeic, and Du made the various sounds in the accompaniment clear: violent gusts of wind in Die Wetterfahne and Der Lindenbaum, the boogie-like flow of the river in Auf dem Flusse, the triumphant horn in Die Post, the plunking of falling leaves in Letzte Hoffnung, and the repeated drone of the hurdy-gurdy in Der Leiermann.

Zellerbach Hall is a large venue for a song cycle, and that may have contributed to the lack of emotional intimacy. Poor technical decisions didn’t help. Although the hall is equipped for supertitles, handouts with lyrics and translations were distributed instead. The rustling of page turns added to the wintery atmosphere... but I’m surprised anyone bothered to follow along, with the house lights so low that the words could not be read without strain. Wilhelm Müller’s poetry is an essential component of Winterreise, and it’s important that audiences be able to understand it. 

Of course, the sound is the most important part of a recital. But I attend live performances in search of more, such as the dramatic physicality of the performances and a connection with the musicians. Without those elements, I’d get as much enjoyment from the CD.

***11