Schubert’s opus 89 was written as the composer’s syphilis slowly brought about his death: Winterreise depicts a person’s journey from despondency and heartbreak over unrequited love through utter despair and finally to a desire for the ultimate oblivion that only death can bring about. Tall order for any singer that attempts the climb of this musical Mount Everest.
The 2019 Pentatone release of the cycle, with the remarkable English tenor Ian Bostridge accompanied by Thomas Adés is delivered in a nicely packaged CD, complete with liner notes by Bostridge and the translations of all 24 songs in the cycle. The entire project is lovingly realized, from the unfussy engineering of Philip Siney to the entire production, which save from the certifiably weird cover art is very nice.
But what about the singing..?
If truth be told I have never been a fan of the whitish vibrato-less sound of the typical English tenor voice, from the late Peter Pears on down to Philip Langridge and now Ian Bostridge, a valuable artist who has admittedly gained wide acclaim for his interpretations of Schubert Lieder, Winterreise in particular, which has become for him a kind of cottage industry, including several recordings, a book, and even a staged version on DVD.
With a long line of superb renditions of Schubert’s Winterreise available on CD, I will always gravitate to the lower voiced readings of baritones: Hans Hotter, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Thomas Quasthoff, Olaf Bär, and Christian Gerhaher, to name but a few rather than the higher-voiced ones, Bostridge’s included.
In the original key the cycle never rises above a top A above the staff, admittedly a reach but not off-limits to the high baritones, and not a problem in the least when sung in the low voice keys. On the other hand and at the other end, repeated dips below the staff, many at key moments tend to fade into oblivion when sung by tenors, Bostridge being no exception as can be heard in the octave intervals in Wasserflut.
Beyond that, the chameleonic ability of a good Lieder singer to change vocal coloring at will is all but absent here. Take Der Lindenbaum, a semi-strophic song that begs for subtle variations with each repeat. Bostridge instead settles for a mannered straight tone delivery that comes off as foreign to the big, muscular Romanticism of Schubert, never mind that true legato singing needs no such vocal gimmicks as replacement.
And then the big climactic moments evade Bostridge’s vocal resources when he tackles the repeated cries of mein Herz with wide-open top notes, when a nice “cover” would better serve the music. By the time Bostridge, aged 54 gets to the final Der Leirmann, the tenor’s over-enunciated German betrays both vocal fatigue and the sense of stasis that this wondrous song should convey.
Thomas Adés accompanies Bostridge well but never for a moment erasing memories of recordings of Winterreise with the likes of Gerald Moore or Daniel Barenboim at the keyboard.
Familiar as many of us are with Ian Bostridge’s forays into Baroque music, we continue to look forward to this fine tenor’s recordings of Handel and Bach. For now I am going back to my Fischer Dieskau 1992 recording for Sony Classical with Murray Perahia, an exemplary partner in art.
Rafael de Acha http://www.RafaelMusicNotes.com