What makes a great song cycle? This question has been asked by composers for hundreds of years. Few would debate that the Winterreise (The Winters Journey) by Franz Schubert is one of the finest in the canon and it’s easy to see why.
Based on the poetry of Wilhelm Müller, I’ll be the first to say that these songs are utterly gloomy and the depths of despair. Though within lies some of Schubert’s most astounding creations. The early 19th century in German music has Schubert as a towering figure, with work like this along with other lieder, symphonies and other music as proof. We might be looking into he recesses of the souls of both writer and composer here. Still, it remains 200 years later, a powerful experience.
There is a deep sincerity that the composer exudes. He even has time to be charming and insightful in the score, as his own mood is mirrored by that of the morbid verse. Our protagonist (an artist) is the definition of an early existential character: what is the point of living if I can’t be with my true love? Why should he create art? His journey into nature is classic Germanic territory.
He is chased by crows, frantically looks for grass under the snow (to no avail) and is haunted by a sign post declaring his death. Symbolism is seem throughout, though not always as clear as intended. Through this dread, lies songs that are whole heartedly refreshing and stimulating, the power of them coming from our own reactions to this poor character’s bout of rejection, hopelessness and suicidal tendencies.
Cardiff Uni alumni Guy Withers returns in magic form. His tenor role here his a telling storyteller and pulls some great facial expressions throughout the whole set. The programme bills him as a “light tenor”, and this is true. True in that it works so well in music like this. He has a pure voice, which brims with a youthful zest and proud clarity in tone. One wonders how his voice will mellow and mature as he gets older. Esther Knight makes wonders out of the piano work here, just a vital role as the voice part. The harmonies Schubert spreads out over the 24 songs makes for a sublime buffet of treats. The melodies are aching with a purity and roundedness, made exemplary by Knight. This piano role should never be underestimated in any way.
As for highlights, there are plenty within the two sets (the composer assumed there was only one set of poetry, but later discovered the second set). The Linden Tree is an early song in the first set, where he sees his love’s craved name on said tree. This eloquent part of the cycle (now a famous folk song in its own right), remains a beautiful section which can easily be seen as a firm favourite. Will o’ the Wisp is a typically sprightly affair, as it leads him astray to a chasm and around the woods.
The Crow hovers above in one of many tense moments, a the piano does a lovely job of playing the motion of the bird as a looming sign of death. The concluding song feels like something out of a Werner Herzog film (another great German artist), a song about The Hurdy-Gurdy Player. Here our “hero” oversees the player, (the only person he encounters on his passage) and question if he should join him or would he even play one of his own songs. The cycle just sort of ends, with the cheap, yet transcending tunes of the hurdy-gurdy.
For just over an hour, it was easy to be enthralled by the Winterreise, in what was a concert not to be forgotten anytime soon.
Want to hear more recital songs? Weeping Tudor Productions present Bernstein Bash! at St Edward’s Church, Cardiff on Saturday 1st December 2018. Join us for songs from West Side Story, Candide and other shows. Expect recital songs and also stimulating piano piece. Join us for the rumble! Book here:
uk/whats-on/uk/st-edwards- church-cardiff/bernstein-bash/ 2018-12-01/19:30?direct- booking
This review is supported by the Wales Critic Fund.