Schubert: Winterreise

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Schubert
LABELS: RCA Victor Red Seal
WORKS: Winterreise
PERFORMER: Thomas Quasthoff (bass-baritone); Charles Spencer (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 09026 63147 2
Winterreise is the trial of ice and fire through which every Lieder singer must pass sooner or later in his or her career. With the tracks of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau still visible in the snow ahead of them, Wolfgang Holzmair, Thomas Hampson and Matthias Goerne have all made notable baritone journeys recently, and now it is the turn of their contemporary, Thomas Quasthoff.

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Quasthoff is a heavyweight baritone – his footfall lies deep in the snow – and his characteristic steady verbal enunciation and musical articulation mark a careful, reverential reading. Few singers show such weariness of spirit fused so movingly with such teeth-gritting determination. ‘Der Wegweiser’ is for Quasthoff a signpost which makes him ache for rest, yet presses him onwards through those sequences of monotones with rare tenacity.

His is a heavy flood of tears in ‘Wasserflut’. Yet this song and ‘Einsamkeit’, in particular, reveal a crucial shortcoming in Quasthoff’s Winterreise. Where Peter Schreier is acutely sensitive to Schubert’s placing of key words such as ‘Weh’ (pain) or ‘elend’ (wretched) in a precise register of the voice and of the song’s harmonic scheme, Quasthoff shows less imaginative awareness. His performance is, for my taste, just too ballasted, lacking the dimension of the heightened consciousness and exposed nerve-system of the visionary.

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As Schreier’s partnership with András Schiff so wonderfully reveals, Winterreise is, of course, very much a double-act; and Quasthoff really does deserve more high-profile accompanying than that of the desiccated, sometimes even desultory, Charles Spencer. Hilary Finch