Goerne and Eschenbach : Winterreise

Obviously, he was too young to understand all the complex emotions
in the piece but what he recognized was that they mattered.
Winterreise is so powerful that even a child, albeit a talented one,
could be inspired to commit it to memory.

There have been hundreds of Winterreises at the Wigmore Hall over
the years. This is an audience that knows the work bar by bar and isn’t
easily impressed, so when most of the house stood up in applause it was serious
praise indeed. I first heard Goerne sing Winterreise some 15 years
ago, near the start of his adult career (he was a child prodigy in East
Germany). He was only 26, yet Irwin Gage was playing, and Alfred Brendel was
listening in the stalls, rapt with attention. Goerne and Brendel became a
legendary partnership, creating some of the finest Schubert performances ever
produced. Their recording of Winterreise is one of the must-hear

Christoph Eschenbach is a superlative Schubert performer too, so this new
series of Schubert cycles at the Wigmore Hall is a significant event. Goerne
and Eschenbach have already recorded Die schˆne Mullerin as part of
the new Harmonia Mundi Schubert Edition. Goerne’s earlier recording of
that cycle is exceptional. Quite frankly, you can’t “know”
that cycle without having heard that recording, because it puts paid to the
myth that the cycle is sweet and innocent. Darker undercurrents almost always
flow through the Romantic.

With Eschenbach, Goerne’s refining his approach to Winterreise yet
again, this time even more cognizant of the structural underpinnings beneath
the text. Each song marks a different stage in the journey, and those stages
are in themselves significant, to be savoured for what they portend. The
journey starts in a huff, the protagonist impulsively dashing out of town, the
wind images in ‘Die Wetterfahne’ expressing turbulent confusion.
Gradually the woman who caused the problem fades into a more generalised image
on which the man can hang his feelings. ‘Der Lindenbaum’ is a
temporary halt, a short moment of calm before “Die kalten Winde
bliesen..” Then the true impact of the words “ich wendete mich
nicht” sinks in.

This is a psychological journey, away from the town and its bourgeois
values. The protagonist is out in the wilderness, in uncharted territory, where
only animal spoor marks a path. Thus Goerne and Eschenbach employ a deliberate,
watchful pace: paying close attention to each passage, every detail counts.
Eschenbach even brought out the faint pre echo of the posthorn that appears as
early as ‘Der Lindenbaum’. Similarly, the village dogs appear, in
the rhythms that start ‘Im Dorfe’.

Landscape is important in Winterreise: it is a mirror of the
protagonist’s soul. Schubert builds images of nature into the piano part
not merely to illustrate text, but to act as an alter ego, almost a third party
commentary beyond the protagonist’s highly subjective anguish. Pathetic
fallacy operates, of course, for the protagonist hears his troubles reflected
in the storm and swollen river, and sees frost patterns as flowers. But
there’s infinitely more to the idea of Nature in the Romantic
imagination. It stands as a symbol of something greater than mankind, something
that endures beyond the personal and immediate.

This has implications for interpretation. Some performances depend on
exaggeratedly emotional singing, on the assumption that the protagonist must be
mad, since he gives up civilization to follow a crazy old beggar. Thus follows
the idea that the journey can only end in death. But that trivializes the whole
logic behind the cycle. If the protagonist is mad, why are we so drawn into
this psychodrama? Wilhelm Muller – and Schubert – wanted us to
experience the journey through the man’s feelings, to sympathize with why
someone should choose a wilder path in life. Perhaps in more psychologically
repressed times the idea of madness and death prevailed but for the Romantics
angst was a code for what we now call the subconscious. The Romantic interest
in emotional extremes was a reaction to the tidy elegance of classicism.
Schubert’s contemporaries were troubled by the world Winterreise
revealed, and rightly so.

The protagonist is driven to his limits but never loses sight of the world
around him, even though he interprets it in terms of himself, for example when
he thinks the crow is a companion. In that sense he’s not a depressive,
turned entirely away from reality. Some point to ‘Der Nebensoonen’
as evidence that the man must be nuts if he sees three suns in the sky. But
it’s a physical phenomenon that in extreme cold, the sun appears
distorted in this way. For a century, we’ve become so used to electricity
and urban living that we can’t imagine such things as reality. Goerne
sings with quiet, understated dignity, as if he’s witnessing a miracle in
nature. True, the protagonist still sees the eyes of his beloved wrought as
huge cosmic images in the sky, but perhaps there’s something more.

The cycle ends with the strange hurdy-gurdy of ‘Der Leiermann’.
The Leier isn’t a lyre, but a primitive instrument, turned rather than
played, making a mechanical circular sound. The old man is “Baarfuss auf
dem Eise”, barefoot on the ice, exposed to the elements, without a shred
of bourgeois respectabilty. And yet he doggedly makes his way from village to
village, despite being hounded by dogs and men. “Wunderlicher
Alter!” sings the protagonist, what kind of phenomenom is this? Orpheus
in rags?

Goerne sings the final sentence with overwhelming grace and wonder.
“Willst zu meinen Liedern deine Lieier drehn?” Will the man follow
the old beggar, who perhaps once set out on a similar journey? Perhaps
he’s like the crow, whose companionship is coincidental not real. But the
old man is human and plays a vaguely musical instrument. Perhaps he’s a
symbol of the power of music, which like Nature endures whatever may happen to
an individual. Throughout the cycle, the rhythms of the hurdy gurdy and
lurching footsteps lurk in the shifts of pace and intensity. The Leiermann
haunts the whole piece, though it takes performance of this very high standard
to bring them out.

Anne Ozorio

Matthias Goerne Schubert Edition
Goerne_Sehnsucht.gif Goerne_AnMeinHerz.gif Goerne_Mullerin.gif
Sehnsucht An mein Herz Die schˆne M¸llerin

image_description=Matthias Goerne [Photo by Marco Borggreve for harmonia mundi]
product_title=Franz Schubert: Winterreise
product_by=Matthias Goerne, baritone, and Christoph Eschenbach, piano. 17 June, 2009, Wigmore Hall, London.
product_id=Above: Matthias Goerne [Photo by Marco Borggreve for harmonia mundi]