Originally composed for solo voice and piano, Schubert’s sublime song cycle Winterreise stands at the pinnacle of his oeuvre, and is widely considered one of the most compelling works of the whole vocal repertoire. Often taken as the composer’s intimate confession as he approached death – just a year later – the work is a series of variations on grief. Within it, the wintery landscape, snowstorms, a frozen stream and the singer’s rejection by his loved one all play vital parts.

Matthias Goerne and the Zurich Chamber Orchestra

Massimiliano Matesic, who arranged this version for orchestral forces, took to the podium to conduct members of the Zurich Chamber Orchestra (ZKO). The featured soloist was the renowned German baritone Matthias Goerne, who has recorded the song cycle twice, and who, here in Zurich, masterfully portrayed the despair, occasional levity and the deeply personal experience of this great Schubert work. The concert’s setting in the newly-renovated Tonhalle was stunning, albeit with its peach-coloured marble columns and gold-gilt decorations, the hall was a place apart from the rural settings and verdant nature of Wilhelm Müller's poems.

Vocally, Goerne’s delivery was spot on. To his great credit, his faultless command of the 24-song cycle (the number of words alone!) was compelling, his baritone, rich and full of variety, his mastery of breath control the envy of any singer. In Wasserflut (Torrent) his “Schnee, du weisst von meinem Sehnen” (Snow, you know of my longing) made the shivers run up one’s spine. Goerne’s ability to switch emotive gears and registers was also evident in Rast (Rest), when he first finds shelter and shortly thereafter, feels the dragon rise with its red hot dart.

His portrayal in Einsamkeit (Loneliness) was heart-wrenching: “Must the world be so bright? When the tempests were howling, I was not so wretched.” And in the last of the 24 songs, Der Leiermann (The Hurdy-Gurdy Player), the overwhelming despair the singer portrayed, with no prospect of any way out, could easily have made even a brave man cry.

Schubert described Winterreise as a cycle of “ghostly songs”. Nonetheless, Goerne's posture and his overwrought, theatrical gestures were often an unsettling distraction. He took a solid stance, but his frequent, sweeping bends to the side, arms thrusting upwards erratically often felt over-calculated, his delivery overshadowed by that exaggeration. Less would have been more.

Nor was the performance without other discomforts. A maddening cell-phone disrupted the silence between two of the songs, at which time the conductor and soloist had to break continuum, and simply stand, looking down – a true picture of patience or prayer – with their hands crossed before them. Another mishap came when Matesic's bulky score fell to the floor just moments before the end of the final song.

Contrary to the notion of the protagonist’s desolate solitude, Matesic’s venture into is ambitious, beautifully moderated, and a real treat for the ear. All of the ZKO players deserve accolades for their musical acuity and precision; the soloists can be commended for their clean and compelling playing of some of the most familiar songs in music history... cell-phone buzzes gladly excluded.