‘Winter into Spring’ runs the umbrella for Oxford Lieder’s nine-recital weekend, but in Schubert’s Winterreise, the great work at its core, snow lies deep throughout with nary a glimpse of warmer prospects. An icy grip squeezes the heart of our wanderer-guide until hallucination takes him who knows where… To death, one hopes, for oblivion would be a blessed relief for his tortured soul.

Sholto Kynoch and Dietrich Henschel
© Oxford Lieder

Hardly a winter warmer of a night out, then, never mind a heart-warmer, yet Winterreise exists more in the narrator’s bleakness of mind than in its corresponding landscape. That is why the performances that wrack this listener’s soul tend to be flawed: intelligent and empathetic but not necessarily sung with mellifluous beauty. If the voice is haunted, lived-in, sits on the edge of exhaustion and tests the singer’s technical limits, Schubert’s masterpiece can floor most receptive audiences, yet when a sweeter voice is doing the suffering it is all too easy to remain unmoved.

This is why the account by Dietrich Henschel proved so involving. In a supremely sensitive partnership with Sholto Kynoch – the latter’s touch on the Steinway in Oxford’s Holywell Music Room beautifully attuned to its warm, lightly resonant acoustic – the German baritone took advantage of their audience-free isolation to deliver a performance of powerful interiority. He gazed long at the floor and kept his fists clenched throughout the 75-minute duration. Henschel seems to have approached his enforced quarantine on arriving in the UK the way a Method actor might prepare for a role; but the layoff may also have softened his vocal resources because his upper register appeared vulnerable and a little threadbare, even though he never lost control of his instrument. His artistry made sure of that. While some listeners will have felt discomfort when Henschel’s voice grew thin, others will have been gripped by the drama. I prefer a Winterreise that’s been wrenched from the singer’s body and this one was ectoplasmic.

In the opening song, Gute Nacht, the singer came out of the blocks as though powered by caffeine, clearly determined to explore his character’s psychosis from the word go. It was the first of several startling takes on songs that can feel overfamiliar these days. By the fifth number, a hyper-dramatised reading of Der Lindenbaum, the troubled wanderer was already beset by his hauntings; by the seventh, Auf dem Flusse, I was worried he’d peaked too early. With another 17 songs still to come we weren’t yet out of the woods and neither was he. It would be hard to imagine a more fitful slumber than this Frühlingstraum (Dream of Spring), while his horror-soaked interpretation of Im Dorfe made the line “Ich bin su Ende mit allen Träumen” (I’m finished with dreaming) feel like a vain attempt to wake up.

Henschel darkened his voice as his character embarked on his final descent down “the one road he must travel from which no man has ever returned”. Das Wirtshaus, a five-minute epic of sustained, grim melody, makes cruel demands coming so late in this epic marathon of energy, memory and concentration, yet it found Henschel at his best. It was as if Schubert’s disintegration had finally caught up with his own.

As a substantial preface to Winterreise, Sholto Kynoch had been joined by the soprano Anna Cavaliero in two of Schubert’s meatiest songs, the mid-career An den Mond in einer Herbstnacht, and Der Winterabend, another breath of chilly weather from the final chapter of the composer’s life. Cavaliero is a spellbinding talent, pure-voiced yet abundantly expressive without a trace of blandness and a subtle vibrato that she uses with great intelligence. The protean pianist was her musical echo and played with a corresponding delicacy. Who cares if Winterabend is a man’s song? This concert proved that with conviction and connection anyone can tell a story.

This performance was reviewed from the Oxford Lieder live video stream.