Schubert’s Winterreise, published in 1828, the year of the composer’s death at the age of 31, is often described as the greatest song-cycle ever written, and its central themes and preoccupations – love and loss, life and death – resonate through the centuries and continue to have a deeply emotional and philosophical impact today.

Ian Bostridge in <i>Winterreise</i> © Hugo Glendinning
Ian Bostridge in Winterreise
© Hugo Glendinning

German composer Hans Zender’s Winterreise is not a transcription of Schubert’s original for small orchestra. It is a “composed interpretation”, a work in its own right, which reflects and refracts the original song-cycle. Its orchestration takes the listener from Schubert’s Vienna, through Mahler and Schoenberg to the cabaret of Weimar Berlin and Kurt Weil. In this way, it challenges received notions of authenticity, historical accuracy and interpretation, and the relationship between performer, composer and audience. If anything, Zender’s Winterreise is even bleaker than Schubert’s with its strong Expressionist flavour and rich sonic associations with contemporary repertoire and instrumentation.

In this production at London’s Barbican Theatre, the music and its narrative are staged by director, designer and video artist Netia Jones using striking black-and-white film, projections, haunting shadows, and chiaroscuro. The video screen is slashed into jagged shards, like a broken mirror, onto which are projected images of frost, a river, bare branches, a lonely snowy landscape through which a solitary figure, Schubert’s tragic “fremdling”, trudges.

Ian Bostridge in <i>Winterreise</i> © Hugo Glendinning
Ian Bostridge in Winterreise
© Hugo Glendinning
Into this setting enters tenor Ian Bostridge, at first seen seated, illuminated by a single overheard lamp. To reinforce the cabaret nature of music and staging, he is dressed like the master of ceremonies in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret – black tails, white face, slicked back hair. He cuts a sinister, solitary figure, alone on his diagonal platform which conflicts with the space around him and seems to reinforce his sense of embittered isolation. His singing is intimate, interior, occasionally breaking into spoken word to emphasise a particular aspect of the text. It is at once highly dramatic and deeply personal.

Zender’s interpretation and instrumentation serves to highlight aspects of Schubert’s original in unexpected and striking ways. Schubert’s piano music lends itself to orchestration and reinterpretation, with its rich textures redolent of string quartet and orchestral writing. With only four strings in Zender’s score, woodwind creates the dominant sound colours, shifting between Austrian folk band and a haunting spareness which illuminates Schubert’s daringly dramatic harmonic shifts and his constant spooling around major and minor keys. Thus, Zender demonstates Schubert’s forward vision and his connection those Viennese composers who came after him. Meanwhile, saxophone, guitar and accordion recreate the flavours of Weill’s cabaret, while percussion is used with great effect to suggest footsteps trudging through the snow (most poignantly at the very opening of the work), the squeak of a swinging gate, snow flurries and the creak of ice. In the final song, Der Leiermann (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man), the orchestration moves away from Schubert’s original to create a soundscape which is menacing and portentous.

Ian Bostridge in <i>Winterreise</i> © Hugo Glendinning
Ian Bostridge in Winterreise
© Hugo Glendinning

Bostridge has been singing this repertoire for 30 years and it shows in his ease with the material and also his ability to reinvent it. In his more traditional performances with the piano, his style is more dramatic, more declamatory. Here, he is introspective, drawing us into the lonely traveller’s self-absorbed emotional landscape and offering a very personal, intimate and memorable performance.

Those who like their Winterreise presented “straight” may find the visuals distracting, and may disagree with Zender’s bending and extending of tempi, musical motifs and textures, but if you are seeking an interpretation which reveals the beauty and the timeless, philosophical qualities of Schubert’s music and Mueller’s poetry, I would urge you to see this.

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