The Dark Mirror: Zender’s Winterreise

Is Hans Zender’s Winterreise (1993) part of the same trend?
After all, it might be described as a sort of polystylist mix of one the sacred
icons of the classical repertoire, in which the spirit of the
nineteenth-century German lied is fused with echoes of other musical
‘voices’ as diverse as Mahler, Weill, Berg, Berio and even Michael
Nyman. Now, to this musical synthesis director Netia Jones has added a visual
complement, creating ‘The Dark Mirror: Zender’s
Winterreise’, which is being staged in the Barbican Theatre by
tenor Ian Bostridge and the Britten Sinfonia, conducted by Baldur

Schubert’s Winterreise has inspired responses —
musical, artistic, theatrical — of many shapes and forms. In March 1996,
tenor Martyn Hill and pianist Andrew Ball performed the song-cycle within an
installation conceived by Christian Boltanski and directed by Hans Peter Cloos
at the Opéra Comique in Paris. Artist Mariele Neudecker, working with
baritone Andrew Foster-Williams and pianist Christopher Gould in 2003,
used Schubert’s songs as the basis for a compilation of 24
short films — each of which existed as both a live performance and
gallery version — using locations along the 60th parallel
north. In the same year, choreographer Trisha Brown populated Schubert’s
cycle through a ballet in which baritone Simon Keenlyside both sang and

Among many re-instrumentations are Liszt’s transcriptions for piano
solo, and the solo violin studies created in the 1880s by Richard Sahla from
three of the cycle. Zender, though, does more than transcribe or arrange: his
‘composed interpretation’ deconstructs Schubert’s original
while sustaining a meticulous analytical engagement with Schubert’s
score. The composer/conductor described how his Winterreise makes use
of ‘the liberties that all composers intuitively allow themselves: the
slowing or quickening of tempi, the transposition into different keys, and the
revealing of more characteristic and colourful nuances’ while all
‘possibilities remain subject to compositional discipline’.

While the vocal line is more or less intact — though fragmented by
stops and starts and some spoken delivery — the songs are given expanded
introductions and postludes (which Zender equates with practice of the great
pianists at turn of century of ‘improvising small bridges between the
different pieces they performed during a concert’), and new counterpoints
which build harmonically and melodically on Schubert’s original. Zender
creates a sonic narrative through instrumentation which includes prominent
percussion, including wind and rain machines, and eclectic orchestral voices
— oboe d’amore, soprano saxophone, guitar, harp, harmonica,
accordion. These are theatrically deployed, though the onomatopoeic effects
— mimicry of howling dogs and clattering chains (‘Im
Dorfe’/In the Village) and the stormy winds (the dislocating rhythms,
harmonies and percussive battery of ‘Der sturmische Morgen’/The
Stormy Morning) — wear a little thin.

The first and last songs are subjected to the most radical transformations,
prefatory and concluding respectively. ‘Gute Nacht’ opens with a
prolonged soundscape — precisely and delicately performed by the
members of the Britten Sinfonia — in which tentative sound-gestures
emerge from silence, the col legno tappings cracking like desiccated
twigs and fracturing ice. Accordion and guitar add what Zender calls
‘archaic references’, but with the entry of the voice, the Romantic
string timbre evokes the cultural richness of the Biedermeier era. Despite such
sensitive evocation, though, I missed the obstinate, enduring tread of
Schubert’s piano which both initiates this particular winter journey and
seems to resume an everlasting cyclic venture upon which we are all

Zender’s orchestral story-telling is vivid and Brönnimann’s
attentiveness and care was impressive. The explosiveness of marimba and
trombone in ‘Irrlicht’ (The Will o’ the Wisp), was matched by
the astringency of ‘Erstarrung’ (Numbness) and the virtuosity of
‘Die Post’ (The Post). Rhythms and registers were exploited
effectively. The coincidence of the horn with the vocal line triplets in
‘Wasserflut’ (Flood) was slick and urgent, while the high trombone
melody in ‘Aum dem Flusse’ (On the River) voiced the tension felt
by the singer who, overcome by exhaustion, has surrendered song to spoken

Brönnimann demanded unwavering restraint from his players and Bostridge
was never required to force his voice above the instrumental textures. But the
conductor pointedly communicated harmonic and temporal arguments. In
‘Rast’ (Rest) the strange, disorientating harmonic twists extended
Schubert’s own arguments between major and minor tonalities, while in the
subsequent ‘Frühlingstraum (‘Dream of Spring’) —
where a flood of light was suggestive of the hallucinatory intimations of the
text — the comforts of the harp were overcome by the sleep-shattering
cock-crow of the horns, an acceleration forcing the wanderer to abandon his
nostalgic reminiscences and push on along the wintry path. In
‘Mut!’ (Courage), the wanderer’s false renewal was constantly
undermined by harmonic disintegration and divergence; phrases lurched between
different keys, and jarring returns to the ‘home key’ evoked the
pathos of futility.

Reflecting on Zender’s ‘re-composition’ I was struck, in
fact, by the score’s conservatism. When one thinks of the playful,
innovative deconstruction and collage of the past in works such as Lucas
Foss’s Baroque variations (1967), Berio’s
Sinfonia (1969), Andriessen’s Anachronie I and
II (1966/69), Arvo Pärt’s Credo (1968)
and Schnittke’s First Symphony (1969-72), one might
anticipate a more discomforting contact zone between 1820s Vienna and more
modern times. But, then, Zender’s lack of ironic distancing is perhaps

Moreover, the concept of ‘staging’ Zender’s work is
inherently present; for the composer included ‘stage directions’,
which even instruct the orchestral members to move: ‘Another possible
extreme I make use of is the shifting of sounds within the room […]
Musicians themselves are made to travel, sounds ‘travel’ through
the room, even outside the room, and such interventions into the original text
highlight the poetic idea of individual songs’.

Here, the Britten Sinfonia stayed seated, and we ‘travelled’
through Bostridge’s embodiment of the literal and psychological journey,
and Jones’s cinematic complement and accompaniment. I confess that,
having recently endured Tal Rosner’s projections to accompany
Britten’s ‘Sea Interludes’ from Peter Grimes
performed ‘next door’ in the Barbican Hall in March — I had
some misgivings.

In the event, Jones’s images were not distracting or abstractly
theoretical as I had feared, but neither did they add much and there was little
to surprise: the Will-o’-the-Wisp was conjured by clouds of light which
blossomed and then dissolved into a black expanse. Adopting a chiaroscuro
default mode, which at times faded to an obliterating blankness of white or
deepened to a consuming agape of black, Jones offered us shadows,
superimpositions and slashes: criss-cross lacerations of gnarled bark barred
the wanderer’s way and intimated a splintered psyche. The journey is both
geographical and mental, and bleak wintery scenes were the backdrop for
montages of Bostridge’s visage, the agonies of hopeful youth countered by
the gaunt realism of disenchanted age: ‘I thought I was an old man
already’ … ‘And I’m horrified by my youth’
(‘Der greise Kopf’/The Old Head).

English translations of Wilhelm Müller’s poetry were projected
within the images and in her programme article Jones explained the choice of
typeface, which in German, ‘more than in most other languages’, is
‘fraught with politics and subjectivity’. Two Grotesque (an early
san serif typeface that emerged in the early 19th century) fonts
were employed: Akzidenz-Grotesk, released by the Berthold Type Foundry in
Berlin in 1896 and Grotesque No.9, use by the British Vorticists in the
magazine BLAST which was published just twice, in 1914 and 1915. I allow that
in the darkened Barbican Theatre it was impossible to read the texts printed in
the programme, but I found their intrusion into the projected images diverted
the eye from the visual and aural signals which are sufficient to communicate
the words’ meaning and inference.

And, so to the performance of Ian Bostridge. As the singer himself commented
in a pre-performance article in the Guardian newspaper:
‘I’ve approached this extraordinary work from all sorts of angles.
I’ve sung it “straight”, in halls all over the world, dressed
in concert gear. I’ve made a TV film of it with the director David Alden,
broadcast in 1997, the year of Schubert bicentenary. I’ve recorded it
with the Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes. I’ve dramatised it with the
pianist Julius Drake, on the vast stage of the Teatro Comunale in Florence,
under the direction of Roberto Andò. Most recently, I’ve written a
book about it, Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession. And
here I am, returning to it again, at the Barbican. Obsession indeed.’

Dressed in immaculate evening dress, Bostridge initially conjured both the
extravagance and expressionism of the Weimar Republic. But, seated aloft on an
unforgiving chair at the raised end of a high, sloping platform he cut a figure
both baleful and alien: trapped in utter, impenetrable loneliness. Then, at the
mid-point in Schubert’s cycle, he discarded formal wear for more
dishevelled attire, moving to the ‘dark mirror’ of the black,
glossy forestage.

Far from bringing us closer to the distressed wanderer, this reorientation
plunged him deeper into an existential hinterland. In ‘Krahe’ (The
Crow), Bostridge curled inwards on the ground and courtesy of Jones’s
images we viewed this vulnerable, huddled figure from the perspective of Ted
Hughes’s Hawk — ‘fly up, and revolve it all slowly —/ I
kill where I please because it is all mine’ — as the singer
anxiously exclaimed, ‘It has flown above my head’, while the
shadows of flapping wings flickered on the cowered form: ‘ Are you
planning soon to get hold of my body as your prey?’

‘Täuschung’ (Delusion) triggered a disturbing attempt to
regain equilibrium. After a fragmented instrumental prelude, the orchestra
introduced a gentle lilt — ‘a light does a friendly dance ahead of
me’ — while Bostridge, once more in evening dress, struggled to
right a music score upon a stand — a desperate attempt to re-establish
sanity through the rituals of musical performance.

I may have been mistaken but it seemed to me that the pace of many of the
songs was a touch slower that I am used to hearing from Bostridge.
‘Lindenbaum’ (The Linden Tree) and ‘Mut!’ in particular
seemed to drift more wistfully. And, I felt that the less urgent tempo and the
expansion effected by Zender’s supplementations lessened the sense of
narrative and psychological momentum and inevitability; that we were not
increasingly sucked into the wanderer’s own psyche but remained in an
observer’s domain, our understanding of the protagonist’s pain
filtered through Jones’s visuals.

Reviewing Bostridge’s performance of Winterreise with Thomas
Adès at the 2014 Aldeburgh Festival, I wrote: ‘while
[Bostridge’s] characteristic range of vocal colour, from bright lyricism
to gritty accentuation, and textual meticulousness were much in evidence, this
performance had something different, and new: a sense of introspective
estrangement and repressed bitterness which was not released until the final
songs when the emotions finally surged in an outpouring of disillusionment and
wrath, before exhaustion overwhelmed all other feeling.’ In this
performance there was not the same sense of dissolution, carthartic or
destructive, for Zender’s timbral and motivic expansion of ‘Der
Leierman’ (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man) contradicts the dry harshness of
rejection which infuses Schubert’s original.

Overall, Bostridge was more withdrawn and introspective than in his concert
hall performances: the text was rendered with his distinctive deep
expressiveness, but the heightened, sometimes violent, intensity which has
characterised his more recent performances of Schubert’s cycle —
and which so startles and challenges, as the singer colours a line with a
rasping timbre or howl of pain — was absent here. There was a more gentle
prevailing lyricism. Perhaps the singer judged that the instrumental colours
and visual images added their own nuances which did not require, or leave room
for, vocal paroxysm, idiosyncrasy or hyperbole? That said, this was an
incredibly sensitive rendition, and Bostridge was as insightful when
communicating through Sprechstimme or spoken text as he was when

When the tenor reprised his Aldeburgh performance with Adès a few
months later at the Barbican I wrote, ‘Bostridge sings with his whole
body and soul, and — lurching clumsily, leaning languidly or exhaustedly
on the piano, his stance by turns hunched then bold — he seemed at times
the epitome of adolescent suffering and defiance. […] one might say that
this was less a musical performance than simply theatre — a sung dramatic

Reflecting on this issue of ‘theatricality’, it seems to me that
Zender’s composition raises many interesting issues relating to the
nature of the musical ‘work’ and to questions of
‘interpretation’. He has professed to have merely developed
features that are ‘only latent in Schubert’ but has admitted
‘that no interpretation can ever be really true to the original’:
‘each note in a manuscript is primarily a challenge to action and not an
explicit description of sound.’ I am struck by Zender’s development
of this idea — that the ‘creative effort, temperament and
intelligence of the performer, as well as the sensitivity formed by the
aesthetics of his or her own time, are necessary to create a lively and
exciting performance’ — for The Dark Mirror seems to leave
little room for the idea of the ‘performer as creator’; no space
for the singer to ‘interpret’.

Following the 2015 Barbican Hall concert noted above, I remarked:
‘Bostridge has performed Winterreise over 100 times. His
interpretations, with different partners and in different contexts, have
evolved, as have his musical priorities, and indeed his voice itself. […]
After this performance — spell-binding, persuasive and utterly bleak
— it is hard to imagine how much further Bostridge can take
Schubert’s wanderer? Perhaps he has reached the end of the journey

Perhaps I should now amend that to ‘personal and private’
journey, for Zender’s palimpsest seems to have offered Bostridge another
path to tread.

Claire Seymour

Tenor — Ian Bostridge, Conductor — Baldur Brönnimann,
Britten Sinfonia. Barbican Hall, London. Friday 13th May 2016

image_description=Ian Bostridge [Photo by Hugo Glendinning]
product_title=The Dark Mirror: Zender’s Winterreise
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Ian Bostridge [Photo by Hugo Glendinning]