Very consciously, no preparation at all was undertaken before entering the concert hall. The title Winterreise in combination with the performer, a very well respected young, Dutch singer songwriter Wende Snijders, and classical composer Boudewijn Tarenskeen was enough of a mystery to warrant attendance. Winterreise together with a contemporary composer?

Gerard Bouwhuis and Wende Snijders © Ben van Duin
Gerard Bouwhuis and Wende Snijders
© Ben van Duin

A quick scan of the programme book resulted in only one mention of Franz Schubert where it was used to create a historical context. Yet yes, this was Winterreise, not only literally through the use of Wilhelm Müller’s heart aching, much aligned poetry, but the well known narrative and Lied ambiance were both clear from the minimal use of space, time, instrumentation and lighting that Tarenskeen and team had chosen to engage.

Wende Snijders is a master of space and time; she uses everything both physical and emotional to transcend the footlights and wrench out our hearts. Breathtaking energy and slightly neurotic gestures bring Müller’s desolation into full focus. Whereas in a regular Schubert Lieder recital — and how sumptuous they can be — a distance often remains between singer, accompanist and audience: a wall of wonder at musical abilities and professional techniques during this difficult drama wrought with challenges in pitch, rhythm, articulation and pianistic subtleties (and who will ever measure up to Fischer-Dieskau, still very much with us through the immortality of his recordings). In contrast, there are no footlights to transcend. The challenges here are masked by a musical and theatrical vocabulary of our time and culture. “Wow” gives way to “Ouch”.

Tarenskeen’s piece leads to and hints at Schubert from time to time, subtle “entre-nous” that bring a quick smile of recognition to Lieder lovers, thankfully short enough not to distract from his own very carefully crafted score. In this performance, great praise for pianist Gerard Bouwhuis whose side of the story has in itself a dramatic element of searching, at times forlorn, at others on the verge of exploding tensions. A solo intermezzo or two were on the lengthy side but Bouwhuis quickly pulled his solo rabbit out of his accompanist’s hat to draw in our attention. Bravo!

Yet quickly back to Snijders, whose presence in Tarenskeen’s spotlight was riveting from start to finish in this their second collaboration together (Schoenberg’s Erwartung preceded this Schubert). She has a veritable Pandora’s box of colours, sounds, grimaces and registers at her disposal, and when she sings in her sweet soprano (as opposed to speaking, shouting, screaming or whispering), it is 99.9% smack on pitch. The next Cathy Berberian? Echoes of her raven imitation haunted my entire next day! Her small face and tiny frame can mirror all emotions; split-second, indeed neurotic changes lead us through the poetry’s roller coaster of grief, doubt, delights and hysterics, with just enough humor to keep it human. One moment, she is the nutcase that you pass on the street with a huge detour, the next, you want to embrace her, stroke her hair and convince her all will be well.

It is impossible to say how years of listening to Schubert’s score (while knowing the full-fledged context of his own proximity to death) enriches Tarenskeen’s new composition. Does it matter? This new Winterreise stands the test of comparison, certainly when entrusted to Wende Snijders’ talent and inspired by the same. This does, however, signal the limit to the piece for it is also impossible to imagine anyone else performing the work.

These days, there should be no more reasons to undertake musical preparation when we seek out the alternative. Many worlds have merged: Renée Fleming is on her way to Broadway, Stephen Sondheim’s music is in a major Hollywood release, DJs run off with Handel, Haydn and Barber without a second thought. Of course this leads to musical disaster and theatrical disappointment with regularity: singers who cannot act, actors who clearly cannot sing. But it also leads, thankfully, to a few new languages. Boudewijn Tarenskeen and Wende Snijders (and team) are made for each other and definitely deliver new words and turns of phrase in this production. It is ripe for an international tour as it speaks with both impact and ease to the international community.

*****