Ian Bostridge, Wigmore Hall

In previous incarnations, Bostridge’s
Romantic wanderer has been a woeful, weary figure, made wretched and
emotionally drained by life’s cares and the loss of love. Here, guided by
Uchida’s rhythmically charged, honest utterances, he was an altogether
more self-determining journeyer, at times despairing, elsewhere angry, but even
in moments of confusion and anxiety, always self-aware and self-possessed.

The rhythmic momentum of the strumming chords which open ‘Gute
Nacht’ (‘Good night’) drew us immediately into a narrative
which seemed to have begun long before, and a bitter energy underpinned the icy
clarity of ‘Gefrorne Tr‰nen’ (‘Frozen Tears’) and
‘Erstarrung’ (‘Numbness’). But, in the central poems,
as the dark currents which well up from the traveller’s desperate
wandering and his own tortured imagination plague and afflict him, a new
reticence was sensed, apt for the beleaguered mood. The pensive restraint of
‘Irrlicht’ (‘Will-o’-the-wisp’) and
‘Fr¸hlingstraum’ (‘Dreams of spring’) intimated that
the wanderer had succumbed to reverie and fantasy, but this was challenged at
times by a growing acknowledgement of his own delusion, in
‘Einsamkeit’ (‘Loneliness’) and ‘Der greise
Kopf’ (‘The hoary head’). In the latter half of the cycle,
the performers exploited Schubert’s sparser textures and greater economy
of means (together with fewer textual repetitions) to develop a powerful
concentration and angry passion as the wanderer is brought by his own inner
thoughts to the brink of suicide.

Contrast and clarity were the touchstones of this interpretation; in this
regard, Uchida painted the canvas, and determined the colour palette, upon
which Bostridge spun the tale. Juxtapositions of major and minor were tellingly
shaped. The piano accompaniment welled from subdued pianissimos to
assertive pronouncements, sensitive to the singer’s need to project the
text but always an active player in the musical and narrative argument. The
reticent opening of ‘Wasserflut’ (‘Flood’) gave way to
the strong, assertive bass line accelerating at the conclusion of ‘Auf
dem Flusse’ (‘On the river’), symbolic of the ‘raging
torrent’ beneath the surface. Discarding the pedal in ‘Rast’
(‘Rest’) Uchida’s sparse, raw accompaniment served to
intensify the singer’s final outburst — ‘You too, my heart,
… you feel stirring in this stillness/ the fierce pangs of
anguish!’; and the delicate ornamentation of the following song,
‘Fr¸hlingstraum’, remained tempered by the dry coldness of the
preceding song, climaxing in a subdued ardency, the modulation to the minor
tonality denying hope of resolution to the singer’s urgent question:
‘When shall I hold my love in my arms?’

Bostridge too made much of every opportunity for contrasting timbres and
hues, intensifying the aching yearning in ‘Wasserflut’ to convey
the young man’s ‘burning anguish’, before adopting a
wonderfully soft piano as the ‘ice breaks into fragments/ and the soft
snow melts’. Creating a magical veiled quality in
‘Einsamkeit’, he relished the chromatic anguish of the
wanderer’s struggle, ‘I go on my may/ with dragging
steps.’ Here, Uchida retreated to allow the text to come through in all
its abject honesty: ‘While storms were still raging/ I was not so

Each song had its striking, and sometimes surprising, features. The
staccato punctuations of ‘Gefrorne Tr‰nen’ seemed to
undermine the wanderer’s hope that, springing from his heart with such
fierce heat, they ‘would melt/ all the winter’s ice’; and
this was further confirmed by the despairing diminuendo at the
conclusion of the subsequent ‘Erstarrung’: ‘My heart seems
dead, her cold image numb within.’

In M¸ller’s poems, natural symbols and natural events are used to
explore man’s relationship with Nature, and thus such symbols are both
literal and metaphorical. Uchida powerfully conveyed this simultaneity in
‘Der Lindenbaum’ (‘The linden tree’). Having adopted a
fairly slow tempo for this song, the piano’s sudden blast of ‘cold
winds … full into my face’, which dislodge the wanderer’s
hat and disturb his illusory peace, was powerfully evocative. Similarly,
Bostridge demonstrated a startlingly affecting lower register in ‘Der
greise kopf’, suggesting the distant depths of the silent grave to which
the wanderer travels.

A troubled urgency marked the concluding songs, initiated by the staccato
accompaniment of ‘Letzte Hoffnung’ (‘Last Hope’) and
propelled by the tempestuous diminished triads shared by voice and piano in
‘Der st¸rmische Morgen’ (‘The stormy morning’). The
barking dogs and rattling chains took on a distinctly sinister air in ‘Im
Dorfe’ (‘In the village’), as the performers exploited every
emotional resonance in Schubert’s contrasts of major/minor tonality and

A burnished gravity characterised ‘Der Wegweiser’ (‘The
signpost’); well-placed ornaments and sprightly dotted rhythms in the
piano were undermined by the hushed vocal timbre and final acknowledgement that
there is but one road that must be travelled: ‘from which no man has ever
returned’. Bostridge’s bitter resignation was overwhelmingly
powerful here, yet he resisted the temptations of emotional excess, maintaining
a restrained, eerie quality in ‘Das Wirthaus’ (‘The
inn’), for his avowals, ‘I am weary, ready to sink,/ wounded unto
death’. Uchida, however, was unwilling to allow passive surrender and the
piano postlude injected a fresh resolution and brightness, leading into the
forced bravado of an impetuous ‘Mut!’ (‘Courage!’). The
contrast of melodic confinement and harmonic yearning in ‘Die
Nebensonnen’ reached a touching conclusion in the repeated interrupted
cadences which convey the wanderer’s melancholy admission of defeat:
aware that the ‘best two’ suns are now lost, he still longs,
‘If only the third would follow’. Yet, the performers continued to
interrogate and explore the music and text, and a startling icy anger pervaded
the doom-laden final song, ‘Der Leiermann’ (‘The

In a letter of 1822, M¸ller wrote: “My songs lead but half a life, a
paper life of black and white … until music breathes life into them, or
at least calls it forth and awakens it if it is already dormant in
them.”* Bostridge and Uchida
certainly awakened the ‘dormant’ music in these texts. Never overly
complex or angst-ridden, never compromising the simplicity and directness of
verse — its ‘black-and-white-ness’ — they depicted the
bleak journey of an outcast wanderer with poignancy but without sentimentality.
A moving and enlightening performance.

Claire Seymour

*G. Johnson (1997), CD booklet for
The Hyperion Schubert Edition, vol.30: Winterreise (Hyperion
CDJ33030), p.4.

image_description=Ian Bostridge
product_title=Franz Schubert: Winterreise
product_by=Ian Bostridge, tenor; Mitsuko Uchida. piano. Wigmore Hall, London, Thursday, 14 April 2011.
product_id=Above: Ian Bostridge