There is a chill in the air in Oslo these days; the days are getting shorter autumn seems to have fully settled in. As a sort of coda to the festival itself, the Oslo Chamber Music Festival (which actually ended about a month ago) put on a concert of Schubert’s gloomy song cycleWinterreise with tenor Ian Bostridge and pianist Håvard Gimse in the University of Oslo’s Great Hall.

Winterreise is the second of Schubert’s song cycles featuring poems by the German poet Wilhelm Müller. It is the story of a young man who, abandoned by his girlfriend, walks through an icy winter landscape, getting ever more depressed and desperate. The cycle is introverted, with sudden furious outbursts from the increasingly anguished narrator.

There is no doubt that Ian Bostridge is familiar with Winterreise. He has been singing the piece for well over a decade, and his familiarity with the piece was readily apparent. The attention to the text was impressive, although he was at times difficult to hear due to him walking around on stage or singing into the piano. The performance was surprisingly theatrical, with Bostridge pacing the stage, fidgeting with his hands and resting himself on the piano. While I’m not averse to slight dramatisation of Lieder, this approach turned out to be a bit much, and I would have preferred a little more standing still and focus on delivering the text. I felt that this much movement took away from the general feeling of sadness and loss that permeates such an introverted cycle.

Bostridge’s characterisation of the songs was interesting, singing almost with a sense of angry defiance throughout, especially in the first half. There was real anger there, not just dejected sadness. There was also a lot of variation in his singing, often going for a straight-toned approach, especially on higher notes. There was even some outright shouting at times, a massive crescendo ending in a powerful, loud, desperate climax. Still, there were times when the singing verged on parody, like the almost cartoonish voice used for the crow in Die Krähe, an effect that was unnecessary in my view. Generally, the slower, more solemn songs were the most successful, with Bostridge moving less, being more able to focus on the text.

Tempi were on the fast side, at times too fast, especially in the slower songs. The fast tempi also obscured some of the piano playing, making it sound more like a blur than separate notes. While it worked for some songs, like Der Wetterfahn, I would have liked more clarity. Gimse did support Bostridge well, however, with a slight rubato, always knowing when to retreat into thebackground. An interesting touch was how modern Gimse made the introduction to Letzte Hoffnung sound. Emhpasising the single notes, and the silence between them, it sounded not unlike something out of the Second Viennese School, quite unlike Schubert, to chilling effect.

This Winterreise was a chilling experience. While the performance was slightly too theatrical, the text at times getting lost, it was impossible not to get a chill down the spine by the final, angry crescendo in Der Leiermann. But in the end, this was a performance where less could have been oh, so much more.

***11