It’s really remarkable that, in his second season as curator of the “Perspectives” series at Carnegie Hall, Sir Simon Rattle decided to collaborate – in between performances with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Berliner Philharmoniker – with the young musicians of Ensemble Connect. Even more, the conductor didn't lead the band in standard repertoire, seomthing its members will most likely face in their future careers, but chose to work together with them on Hans Zender's controversial reworking of Schubert's Winterreise A composed interpretation, first performed in 1993.

Mark Padmore © Marco Borggreve
Mark Padmore
© Marco Borggreve

Zander's opus is definitely more than an adaptation of Schubert for a small and colorful orchestra. It should not be compared to, say, the intentionally faithful orchestration that Ravel did for Mussorgsky's Pictures in an Exhibition. Instead, it should be treated as an independent work of art, as other powerful derivative creations – Liszt's "Paraphrases" or Picasso's Las Meninas and Les Femmes d'Algers – are considered. In any case, one should not think about the work as some sort of a blasphemy, even if you could feel that something you know very well and cherish has been taken away from you. Schubert’s Winterreise has been subject to multiple visual and choreographic commentaries which we take at their face value. There is no reason not to accept Zander’s embroideries, rooted in deep respect for Schubert's oeuvre, only because they are just purely musical ones.

Zander views Schubert’s songs through a post-Mahlerian, post-Second Viennese School lens. Bending and extending tempi, he emphasizes Schubert’s daring harmonic shifts, the constant alternation between major and minor sonorities that permeate the original score. He deconstructs the piano part of several songs and weaves in new introductions and commentaries, new harmonic and melodic details, making even deeper the sense of loneliness and exclusion, and in the process creating a different aural experience brought forward with poignancy by the young musicians following Rattle’s direction.

Zander employs only a couple of strings, the musical color coming mostly from the wind section. He uses saxophone, accordion and muted trumpets in different combinations in order to recreate an ambience redolent of the Weimar Republic, the point in time and space where he places his observation deck. Furthermore, Zander uses eerie percussion to suggest footsteps, snow flurries or a squealing gate, trying to concretize the images in Wilhelm Müller’s verses. Emphasizing all these noises though, he left open a question: did he really enrich Schubert’s opus or just made too obvious what was more subtly implied in the original score?

Definitely not a stranger to interpreting Schubert’s song cycles, tenor Mark Padmore performed with an intensity similar to the one he famously brought to the role of the Evangelist in Bach’s St Matthew Passion. His phrasing and sense of pace were exquisite, from Gute Nacht to Der Leiermann. In a vocal part not as much modified from the original, he adapted to changes – shouting words here, using the microphone there – with willingness and elegance.

The members of Ensemble Connect played with boundless enthusiasm and impeccable technique. They are all students of the Academy of Carnegie, Juilliard and Weill – that's why the ensemble was known until very recently under the odd name of “ACJW” – a program for postgraduate musicians. Run jointly by Carnegie Hall, the Weill Music Institute and the Juilliard School, this initiative prepares its fellows not only to be excellent musicians but also to get involved in teaching and community engagement. The ensemble’s frequent visits to Carnegie Hall, featuring uncommon and innovative programming, are always connoisseurs’ treats and listening to Zander’s transmogrified Winterreise was no exception.