At one time there were only a handful of recorded performances of Winterreise, but matters are different now, making a choice much more difficult. It is not only Müller’s unnamed hero who undertakes an arduous journey, but those who perform it and those who listen too. The work is so monumental and complex that comparing this or that song is of little value, and with so many outstanding performances available the very idea of a ‘best buy’ now seems absurd. Nonetheless, let me say that this new performance from Gerald Finley and Julius Drake is one of the finest I have ever heard.
The merits of Finley’s singing are well known. The beauty of the voice is a good place to start, and even referring to such matters as intonation and line seems impertinent when dealing with singing such as this. The composer has sought to illuminate the words, but Finley supports him with skill and tact. Drake’s attentive, deeply musical playing is just as widely appreciated.
In the opening song, as the rejected lover sets out on his journey, Finley subtly modifies his vocal colour to evoke the shadow cast by the moon. This is just one sign that we are in for a detailed reading, though one that never becomes micro-managed, as these artists do not forget that Schubert has already done the work. Finley and Drake are strong on Schubert’s irony in the second song where, to music that is almost heroic, we learn that the young man is an unworthy suitor because his beloved is a ‘rich bride’. Drake braves the exhausting accompaniment to ‘Erstarrung’ before evoking the distant horn calls in ‘Der Lindenbaum’. Is their reading of this song just a little too slow and expressive, slightly missing its simplicity of utterance?
The frozen river on whose surface the traveller scratches his beloved’s name is just right, though, as is the will-o’-the-wisp, magically visible even on the semiquaver-filled page. In the tenth song the traveller rests in a charcoal burner’s cottage, but the accompaniment tells us that his journey continues, making us wonder if, for Schubert, the journey existed only in the jilted lover’s mind. His ‘weary steps’ are again audible in ‘Einsamkeit’, the last song of the cycle as Schubert originally envisaged it, and no less desolate than the real ending to come.
When the traveller hears the post horn he hopes for a letter from his beloved. Finley and Drake choose a moderate tempo, the dotted rhythms that evoke the coach even slightly muted. Thus is it clear that this is a song of hope that will never be satisfied. In ‘Der greise Kopf’ snow has turned the traveller’s hair white, but as it melts he realizes that he is still young, with many empty years before death will release him. Shocking dissonances on key words form part of the simple means Schubert adopts in this remarkable song, and these performers execute them with equally shocking simplicity. I wish they had decided against the slight rallentando at the end of ‘Der Wegweiser’, as maintaining a steady pulse to the final double bar might have underlined the inevitability of the onward journey. Nor do I care for the near-fortissimo ending they give to the heartrending song ‘Das Wirtshaus’, even as I understand why they do it. Finley is deeply moving in the second half of the penultimate song, as the traveller eloquently verbalizes his past and desolate, hopeless future, after which it only remains to wonder if the barefoot hurdy-gurdy man’s playing is to accompany the traveller for the rest of his days. Finley barely whispers the question.
In a very fine booklet essay, Richard Wigmore—who also provides the song text translations—reminds us that Benjamin Britten considered Winterreise to be one of the two pinnacles of Western art. (The other was the B minor Mass.) Few, now, would recommend his performance with Peter Pears as a ‘best buy’ though perhaps not for the right reasons—but those who hear it will gain insight into why Gerald Moore once referred to Britten as ‘the world’s greatest living accompanist’. He evokes nocturnal village sounds in ‘Im Dorfe’ in an almost uncanny way, and it demonstrates how much he learned from Schubert when faced with similar challenges in works such as the Op 60 Nocturne. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau cannot be ignored, but his singing is almost as idiosyncratic as that of Pears, and that is hardly the way nowadays. Major competition for this new issue comes from Hyperion itself, with Winterreise in the Schubert Edition, sung by Matthias Goerne, whose voice lends a marginally less comfortable, more vulnerable aspect to Schubert’s tragic hero than does Finley’s rich baritone in this new, quite marvellous, reading.