Angelika Kirchschlager’s first Winterreise

Similarly, men are often the voice of choice in female roles where an
element of strangeness is to the fore, such as Birtwistle’s Snake Priestess
(The Minotaur) and Britten’s Madwoman (Curlew River). Theatre, too, is gender-neutral these days, and Glenda Jackson
can be King Lear just as Mark Rylance can become Cleopatra.

But, what of the recital hall? Where the solo lieder singer has no dramatic
role to embody and where the poet so often seems to have identified
intensely with the poetic persona for whose voice the singer is an
expressive conduit?

I put this question to Austrian mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager,
before her performance of Schubert’s Winterreise at

Middle Temple Hall

, with pianist Julius Drake. She sensibly pointed out that in the opera
house, the travesti roles make a positive and essential
contribution, androgyny being integral to the dramatic and musical design,
and also to the ‘entertainment’. But, art song is not entertainment: it is
both delicate and powerful; it forces one to reflect on and to integrate
ideas and emotions; it issues challenges of a political and personal
nature. “There is always something humming beneath the surface.”

I wondered if, while we are unperturbed by a woman embodying, say, the
lovesick travelling journeyman in Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen or Schubert’s Ganymede, there is
something unique about Winterreise, Wilhelm M¸ller’s poems being
too ‘confessional’ to permit the crossing of gender lines? Angelika
explained that she believes Winterreise communicates human
experience, rather than an explicitly male or female perspective. She
described the song-cycle as “a journey to the inside of a human being”, a
spiral ever deeper into loneliness as the male persona becomes increasing
cut off from the world, unable to find his place, ever more lost. “A man or
a woman can do that journey.”

And, why not? Female singers including Elisabeth Schumann, Lois Marshall,
Christa Ludwig and Brigitte Fassbaender have all performed or recording Winterreise. After thirty years of singing opera and lieder, and
ten years of teaching, Angelika hoped that it would come up some day. “It
is the ultimate challenge in lieder. A complex masterpiece for which I have
so much respect.” The exploration of the cycle’s psychology and parameters
is obviously something that the mezzo-soprano has relished.

When I questioned whether a male singer could sing Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben, Angelika replied, “No. Because the songs
communicate uniquely female experience. No man can ever know what it is to
love as a woman, to marry, to become a mother.” Schumann’s songs tell of a
woman’s daily life, whereas in Winterreise only the first song,
‘Gute Nacht’, is connected to the real world, and through the rest of the
cycle the persona travels ever further into nature and away from people.

Angelika told me that she feels the influence of Schubert’s own life
experiences in these songs – practical problems arranging concerts, with
women, money, illness – and that the cycle expresses feelings of
helplessness about where life can go. She also believes that the winter
traveller’s journey into isolation and introspection has begun long before
the first song commences; that he had suffered before, and that the cycle
resumes a long process of separation. “Why is he leaving? We don’t know and
can only speculate. But, I try to keep out lament; not to cry unless it is
in the songs, and to focus on other emotional aspects. He is rushing away,
and he just keeps on going.” Interestingly, Angelika remarked that after
more than a year of learning the song-cycle, she felt that she was getting
into the mind of a man, encountering problems which she recognised from the
experiences of men whom she knew.

I was surprised when Angelika revealed that she has never heard Winterreise performed live before, and I asked her how she has
been preparing for her own first performance of the cycle. She listened to
recordings of single songs – “thinking about how creative I could be,” she
said, with a laugh – and then explored the texts, looking for connections
between Schubert’s harmonies and the texts. Schubert’s textual annotations
were comprehensive, and she commented, “you don’t have to do anything, just
find out what Schubert wants to tell us”. As she advises her students, if
you just sing what you feel, it will be your music but not the composer’s.

We discussed some of the practicalities such as the choice of keys and
transposition. Angelika’s choices are entirely her own, drawing on the
original version and those for medium and low voice. She carefully
considered the connections between songs, asking herself whether she wanted
progressions to seem “weird” or natural, whether to retain links or to
break them. Having gone through numerous sets of possibilities, changing
the key relationships over and over, she has settled on her fifth version!

We talked, too, of vocal technique and colour, and Angelika emphasised that
the absence of contrast between the chest and head voice for women has a
marked effect. Schubert may have written a particularly high passage for
tenor, anticipating the softness and colour of the head voice, and so a
woman’s performance will inevitably be different. I raised the matter of
the ‘distance’ between the vocal line and piano, the former higher in pitch
than usual, and the latter lower as a result of the transposition, and
Angelika reflected that perhaps this increases the sense of the traveller’s
alienation and loneliness.

I wondered whether the close proximity of the audience at Temple Church
presented challenges, but Angelika laughed again: “I like the audience
close! I’ve sung in venues where they’ve been much closer. It means the
audience cannot escape! I don’t want to sing in a dark auditorium where the
audience are anonymous: they must be part of it, they are 50% of the

At the end of our conversation, Angelika spoke with passion. “There can
never be a right or wrong Winterreise. There are simply always
more aspects of the cycle to explore and each new interpretation is a
positive contribution to the work’s life. A ‘solution’, there can never be.
But the essential thing is to be faithful to the music and that will ensure
that the singer is faithful to Schubert’s genius.”

With such thoughts in mind, I settled into the pew at Temple Church and
listened to the urgent but light tread of Julius Drake’s piano introduction
to ‘Gute Nacht’, and was immediately struck by this traveller’s intensity:
the fixity of Angelika Kirchschlager’s stare as she seemed to reach for a
distant point, beyond the horizon, was riveting. There was steely purpose,
here: ‘Was soll ich l‰nger wellen/ Bis man mich treib’ hinaus?’ (Why should
I wait longer for them to drive me out?) pushed forward, with defiant
determination. There was tension and turbulence too – in the unruly
trembling of Drake’s weathervane in the following song, and in the
traveller’s heart – but in these opening songs it was restrained, almost
repressed, occasionally retreating into numbness, or, as in the final
stanza of ‘Gefrorne Tr‰nen’, momentarily relaxing and finding warm release:
‘Als wolltet ihr zerschmelzen/Des ganzen Winters Eis’ (As if you would
melt/All this winter’s ice).

Dreams of ‘Der Lindenbaum’ transported the traveller far from the present,
but the tenderness of the vision only emphasised the vulnerability of the
voyager. This was less a ‘narration’ than a drama, as Kirchschlager
communicated emotion openly and directly. Though her artistry was ever
evident, the mezzo-soprano seemed to render these art songs into pure
feeling, almost folk-like in their honesty, often singing with little
vibrato and using vocal heightening and nuance with care and
thoughtfulness. Flashes of brightness – passion, anger, pain – were thus
all the more telling. The slow tempo of ‘Wasserflut’ suggested the
traveller’s ‘lostness’, though the heatedness of the burning tears reminded
us of his anguish; Drake’s tip-toeing accompaniment in ‘Auf dem Flusse’
took us deeper into a dream-scape, before we were wrenched back to reality
by the traveller’s agonized questioning as he gazes into the stream at the
close of the song – ‘Ob’s unter seiner Rinde/ Wohl auch so reiflend
schwillt?’ (Is there such a raging torment beneath its surface too?) – the
agitation spilling over into restless ‘R¸ckblick’ (A backward glance).

It was the lurch in Drake’s skittish accompaniment at the start of
‘Irrlicht’ (Will-o’-the-wisp) which signalled a shift to a darker,
dangerous psychological landscape. Ironically, the terrible unfulfillment
of the traveller’s searching was communicated by Kirchschlager’s
beautifully warm lower range and her effortless transitions between
registers. She seemed to physically inhabit the tiredness of ‘Rast’, though
Drake’s steady accompaniment was cruelly impassive; the sudden freshness
and vigour of ‘Fr¸hlingstraum’ (Dream of Spring), was troubled by deep,
unpredictable currents. Always the tension was kept in check, though the
threat of disintegration seemed ever imminent, and contrasts between the
lassitude of ‘Einsamkeit’ (Loneliness) and the frantic haste of ‘Die Post’
were disquieting. The delicacy of the close of ‘Der greise Kopf’ was
frightening, and it was no surprise when it was shattered by the piano’s
tormented circlings in ‘Die Kr‰he’ (The crow).

‘Letzte Hoffnung’ (Last hope) followed segue, another irrevocable
staging-post on a journey into existential solitude. The final songs
accrued a gripping dramatic force, which relaxed slightly as Kirchschlager
lightened her voice to capture the hallucinations of ‘T‰uschung’ (Delusion)
but then exerted its grip as she hardened the sound to convey the
traveller’s obsessive intensity in ‘Der Wegweiser’ (The signpost): ‘Eine
Strafle mufl ich gehen,/ Die noch keener ging zur¸ck.’ (One road I must
travel, form which no man has ever returned.) The arrival at the inn (‘Das
Wirthaus’) seemed to bring some comfort and relief, but the courage of
‘Mut’, as the vocal line flashed with fire, bordered on madness and the low
piano bass in ‘Die Nebensonnen’ (Phantom suns) seemed to draw the traveller
ever deeper into his own obsessions and fixations. The encounter with ‘Der
Leiermann’ offered no solace: subdued, still, the music and the traveller
seemed to slip away, elsewhere.

The sustained focus and intensity of this performance of Winterreise was astonishing and almost hypnotic. During our
conversation, Angelika had been keen to point out that this is first time
that she has performed Winterreise, and that her interpretation
will undoubtedly develop. The next stop is the Vienna Staatsoper, where she
and Julius Drake will perform the cycle in October. This is just the
beginning of her own musical journey.

Claire Seymour

Angelika Kirchschlager (mezzo-soprano), Julius Drake (piano)

Temple Church, London; Tuesday 24th July 2018.

image_description=Winterreise, Temple Song, Angelika Kirchschlager (mezzo-soprano) and Julius Drake (piano)
product_title=Winterreise, Temple Song, Angelika Kirchschlager (mezzo-soprano) and Julius Drake (piano)
product_by=An interview/review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Angelika Kirchschlager

Photo credit: Nikolaus Karlinsky