A truthful Winterreise from Ian Bostridge and Angela Hewitt at Wigmore Hall

Wunderlicher Alter
Soll ich mit dir gehn?
Willst zu meinen Liedern
Deine Leier drehn?

[Strange old man!
Shall I go with you?
Will you grind your hurdy-gurdy
to my songs?]

If the answer to the wanderer’s question to the hurdy-gurdy man in the final song of Schubert’s Winterreise is “yes”, Ian Bostridge has suggested, then ‘the crazy but logical procedure would be to go right back to the beginning of the whole cycle and start all over again’.  In a sense, that is indeed what Bostridge has been doing through the last three decades, exploring, in his own words, ‘a notion of eternal recurrence … trapped in the endless repetition of this existential lament’.  But, Bostridge’s perpetual re-treading of the wanderer’s winter journey has surely spun a parallel narrative, and one which is similarly open-ended.  As the organ-grinder’s numb-fingered droning takes the traveller back to the start of the monodrama which he is compelled to re-live, so Bostridge’s embodiments of that circuitous fate have forged an interpretative journey which has traversed musical landscapes as diverse as the poetic environments in which the wanderer endures.

Such thoughts came to mind as I settled into my seat in a full-to-the-rafters Wigmore Hall to hear Bostridge perform Schubert’s song-cycle with pianist Angela Hewitt.  Since Bostridge’s first solo recital at Wigmore Hall in 1995, I’ve lost count of the times that the tenor and his pianists have transported me to the desolate places – both outer and inner – of Wilhelm Müller’s twenty-four poems.  And, in not one of those performances has the protagonist’s wandering, through the frozen world and deeper into his own subconscious, not taken unexpected and revelatory twists or turns.  And, so it was on this occasion.  In this Hall in 2018, the last time that I heard Bostridge sing Winterreise live, he and Thomas Adès wrenched us into the Beckettian abyss of the wanderer’s tortured imaginings.  In contrast to the emptiness of existential anguish, in a live-streamed performance with Joseph Middleton at the 2020 Leeds Lieder Festival, Bostridge’s wanderer, driven forward by turbulent anxiety, bitterly, fiercely but ultimately futilely, resisted the threat of deluge, the loss of self.  In this performance with Hewitt there was a quieter pathos, the traveller’s vulnerability no less palpable and painful, but somehow acknowledged with an almost wistful fatalism.

From the first, soft step of ‘Gute Nacht’, Hewitt found an inner warmth – a sort of solidity, or certainty – at the core of the frozen world which the piano’s sonic imagery conjures.  The weight of the piano’s quiet insistent quavers and inter-phrase accents made the snow through which the wanderer makes his way in the darkness seem deep, freshly fallen.  The wind that toyed with the weather-vane at the start of ‘Die Wetterfahne’ did not blow with such a bitter bite, though the branches of the linden tree (‘Der Lindenbaum’) were rustled by an unpredictable and restless breeze.  The hard crust of ice on the surface of the silent stream (‘Auf dem Flusse’), as sketched by the piano’s fairly full staccatos, did not seem as stiff and brittle as the protagonist imagines, as if denying his harrowing visions of a raging torrent beneath the icy surface, reflecting his inner turmoil.  Indeed, Bostridge’s bending of the pitch, with the image of the broken ring which is wound around the name and figure of his beloved, and the tenor’s almost boorish flinging of the final question at the unresponsive stream, only confirmed his impotence in the face of nature’s impassivity and his own mental fragility.  No wonder the piano’s gentle postlude and delicately arpeggiated close seemed so cruel.

The pictorialisms – the circling crow, the barking dogs and rattling chains – were crafted by Hewitt with a clarity and composure which almost mocked the ever more deluded journeyman, so that when the snow impeded his onward thrust (‘Mut’) his defiant protestations seemed unnecessarily vociferous, a sign of his increasing alienation from the real.  In this way, the piano did not so much as reflect both the external world and the wanderer’s unconscious mind as heighten the reality of the former and thus also the estrangement of the latter.  

This was especially noticeable in the calmer, major-key songs which acquired a dreamy unreality that was aurally consoling and psychologically disconcerting.  The crystalline accompaniment to the protagonist’s imaginings that the branches of the linden tree are calling to him, offering rest, both highlighted the frail tenderness of his dreaming and, when the cold wind brusquely swept off his hat, substantiated his folly.  The sweet insouciance of ‘Frühlingstraum’ (‘Dream of Spring) seemed almost callous when the crowing cocks pulled the dreamer into a dark, cold world of ravens and frozen leaves.  Bostridge’s final plea, “Wann halt’ ich mein Liebchen im Arm?” (When shall I hold my love in my arms?) faded with wan languor, the minor-key close and the piano’s low pianissimo thuds a quiet but firm rebuttal – and one which lingered through the following song, ‘Einsamkeit’ (Loneliness) seeming to lend a darkness to Bostridge’s tenor, deepening the wretchedness.  Again, Hewitt’s measured rhetoric, during the protagonist’s final exclamations of distress at nature’s indifference, only emphasised that the remembered storms are now raging within.  The gently drifting lilt of ‘Täuschung’ (Delusion) offered the wanderer a retreat, though a perilous one, into the interiority of subjectivity.

Bostridge was characteristically responsive to the text, spontaneously so, but his performance seemed somehow ‘stiller’ than on other occasions, the bewilderment and despair communicated, certainly, but contained within rather than unleashed – and perhaps, thus, more piercing and afflicting, particularly when emotions rose up and overspilled.  The gentle tears that fell at the start of ‘Gefrorne Tränen’ (Frozen tears) burned with a frightening intensity at the close, as Bostridge threw an angry charge directly at the Hall, “Als wolltet ihr zerschmeizen/ Des ganzen Winters Eis!” (as if you would melt all the winter’s ice); and, his hot’s tears propelled him forwards, pushing ahead of the piano, in the following ‘Erstarrung’ (Numbness), until the close lapsed into a strained tension: “Schmilzt je das Herz mir wieder,/ Fließt auch ihr Bild dahin” (should my heart ever thaw her image will too).  The oxymoronic imagery was heightened in ‘Wasserflut’ (Flood), too, a slight delaying of the vocal rise that depicts the ‘burning anguish’ that slakes its thirst on the cold snow creating a churning dissonance, the pain of which was deepened by the rigid tautness of Hewitt’s dotted rhythms which challenged the smoothness of the voice’s triplet flow.  And, again Bostridge suggested the impetuousness of the wanderer’s desire, pushing ahead of Hewitt with the closing vision of the loved-one’s house.

‘Irrlicht’ (Will-o’-the-wisp) was beautifully detailed, Bostridge exploiting not only the text, but nuances of harmony and rhythm too, the elongation of the closing fermata, and the whispered pianissimo, confirming that every sorrow will indeed find its grave (“Jedes Leiden auch sein Grab”).  The conversation between piano and voice crafted fine images at the start of ‘Der greise Kopf’ (The hoary head).  Here, Bostridge elongated the motivic feature, the decoration of “gestreuet”, to emphasise the sprinkling of white that the frost has strewn, Hewett crystalising the delicacy of the image in a tender echo of the falling vocal phrase.  Weariness weighed down this song, “Wie weit noch bis zur Bahre!” (how far still to the grave!), yet the impossibility of rest was underlined, for ‘Die Krähe’ (The crow) followed segue and was fraught with anxious questioning.  Indeed, the whole sequence had a strong impetus, even while individual songs – such as ‘Letzte Hoffnung’ (Last hope), with its dry piano ‘stabs’ and air of instability – temporarily held up the forward progress.  ‘Der Wegweiser’ (The signpost) had a lovely lyrical flow, enhanced by the piano counterpoint and the dotted rising motif in the bass, so the slowing of the rhythmic values in the final phrase served to underscore the bleakness of the journey’s destination: “Eine Strasse muss ich gehen,/ Die noch Keiner ging zurück” (one road must I travel from which no man has ever returned).

With ‘Das Wirthaus’ (The inn) came a shift of tone.  Bostridge bowed over the piano as if burdened by Hewitt’s drained, falling chords, but, revived by self-denial in ‘Mut’, this wanderer observed the three suns in the sky (‘Die Nebelsonnen’) with quiet composure, Bostridge’s tenor soft but ‘present’. There was a strange calm and directness in his wonder at the suns’ fixedness, “Als wollten sie nicht weg von mir” (as though they’d never leave me).  And, the organ-grinder, too, was faced with honest recognition that what had been denied could not be denied.  The silence that followed was long and laden with human truths.

Claire Seymour

Ian Bostridge (tenor), Angela Hewitt (piano)
Wigmore Hall, London; Tuesday 5th April 2022
ABOVE: Ian Bostridge © Kalpesh Lathigra