You’ll want to experience Die Winterreise in the context of Schubert’s first complete song-cycle, in which he also sets the poems of Wilhelm Müller, this time almost as soon as the verse was hot off the press. These songs have been sung in a fever of raw adolescent emotion and volatility, and with the melancholy of retrospection. Schubert’s music, with its wide-arching melodies, its repeating words and phrases, its ambivalent swaying between major and minor tonality, is a suggestive stage manager – it concentrates the cycle’s action within the psyche of the miller’s apprentice. The only other real presence is that of the personified brook – the lad’s first and last confidant, and the
true lover who wins him in the end.
Essential recording: Werner Güra (tenor), Jan Schultsz (piano)
Harmonia Mundi HMA 1951708
Schubert – Schwanengesang
Schubert’s own swansongs were written in his final year. Although aware of the syphilitic illness which was killing him, he was on good form when in April 1828 he worked on seven settings of poems by Ludwig Rellstab which were to open a cycle whose ordering was formed only posthumously by the composer’s publisher. Already there are intimations of mortality: in the warrior’s foreboding of ‘Kriegers Ahnung’, in the questioning of ‘Frühlingssehnsucht’. And then come six of the most terrifying settings of Heinrich Heine that exist. Most recordings also include Schubert’s last song, ‘Die Taubenpost’.
Essential recording: Christoph Prégardien (tenor), Andreas Staier (piano)
Challenge Classics CC 72302
Schumann – Kerner-Lieder
When the poems of Justinus Kerner were published in 1826, the teenage Schumann fell under the spell of the imagination of this philosopher-physician. For Kerner, shadows, the underside of life, nature’s non-corporeal presences, were potent symbols of the spiritual life. His sensibility is in tune with that of Winterreise: of the Kerner-Lieder, baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau wrote ‘not one of the poems celebrates joy or calm happiness. Each one speaks of sadness, loneliness, renunciation, madness’. Schumann’s settings of 12 of Kerner’s poems formed part of his output which remained little known until Fischer-Dieskau’s championship.
Essential recording: Simon Keenlyside (baritone), Graham Johnson (piano)
Hyperion CDJ 33102 £12.99
Schubert – Wanderer Fantasy
The existential vision of the lone wanderer, the outsider seeking rest, is a recurrent theme in German Romantic art, literature and music. And, in Schubert’s later years, it seemed to dominate his thinking, transmuting and metamorphosing musically into the variations and fantasies of his late piano writing. The Wanderer Fantasy of 1822 is inspired by the composer’s own song ‘Der Wanderer’ (1816), its slow movement based on the words ‘Here the sun seems so cold, The blossom faded, life old; Men’s words mere hollow noise; I am a stranger everywhere’. Liszt was so impressed by this work that he tried to make a piano concerto of it.
The figure of the isolated observer is Thomas Hardy’s answer to the archetypal wanderer of German literature. Think of ‘The Darkling Thrush’ who sings of ‘some blessed hope whereof he knew, but I was unaware’, and the church visitor to the Christmas crib, approaching alone, and ‘hoping it might be so’. Britten, champion of the loner and the outsider, and admirer of Schubert, created his own winter journey in his responses to Hardy’s set of Winter Words. The engine-whistle in ‘Midnight on the Great Western’ symbolises the desolation of the ‘world unknown’; the yearning of ‘Before Life and After’ echoes
on in the cries of ‘How long, how long?’
Essential recording: Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano)
Hyperion CDH 55067
Zender – Schubert’s Winterreise
Die Winterreise has been sung in every vocal register, accompanied by string quartet, staged, and even choreographed. But Hans Zender (above) dared to reinvent the cycle in the 1990s as a ‘composed interpretation’, originally for his Ensemble Modern, and now in a newer recording for the Klangforum Wien. Zender works on what he calls ‘the liberties that all composers intuitively allow themselves’: the changes of tempo, the transposition into different keys, and the revelations of new colours and nuances. It’s all there in the original – but thought-provokingly redistributed in his recreation.