Cal Performances 2017 Review: Ian Bostridge and Wenwen Du Delivered Masterful Rendition of ‘Winterreise’

To put what is wordless back into words and believe it will express the same thing is like offering the hen her egg again. So, to say what Ian Bostridge transmitted at Cal Performances on Nov. 10, 2017, seems arbitrary and futile. But, we are human, and we try, listeners, music and life-lovers. Schubert’s “Winterreise” is the story of a journey in winter taken by man full of a sorrow. Each of the 24 songs are another step in his descent into despair and up to the edge of death.  Many call this Schubert’s masterpiece, and Ian Bostridge, side by side with his excellent pianist, Wenwen  Du, brought this to us, seated spellbound before him.

Never do we know how the inexpressible will come to us. No route is assured and needless to say, no sure arrival. When the long, thin, nimble Bostridge stands and bends sinuously beside a grand piano, a tuft of hair falling on his forehead and takes us into this inner landscape, we just follow. We can hardly help ourselves. It seems that he is there, himself, on that precipice. Hardly is there performing here. “Winterreise” so exquisitely sung by Christian Gehaerer or Jonas Kaufmann in our day, or Dietrich Fischer Diskau or Hermann Prey, in others, and played by Bostridge’s other accompanists, including Julius Drake, in Bostridge and Wenwen Du, is the living embodiment of the harrowing masterpiece. Bostridge, all body from chin to hand to feet communicates this. No mirror is he, but a man of sorrow itself.

Wenwen Du is more than a graceful and vibrant accompanist. She takes her place before the great instrument with conviction and high energy. Never does she lag behind nor fail to set the tone of dark grace that Schubert-through-Bostridge conveys. When, in fact, we separate for a moment the pure musicality of her piano rendition, we realize again Schubert’s musical genius. Who wanted it to end?

Precise & Moving

There is no affect in Bostridge’s method of presentation. He moves gracefully and spontaneously through the cycle, sometimes leaning into the curve of the piano itself, looking deep into the ocean of sound it expresses, standing straight up and singing out to us, arms hanging down, hands empty. He is at once a Picasso “saltimbanque”, and a great sea bird. He articulates every word, and the emotion it stands for, each as though an object of great beauty. Every vowel and consonant, the spectrum of color and timbre, low to high, and higher, dark to light, pianissimo to fortissimo emits authentic feeling and meaning. When he bursts out with his upper register –  he is a tenor, after all – we are almost surprised. It’s as if he kept that sound in reserve. Only when he chooses to, or his Singer, will he let that tone ring out – sometimes even in almost in shout – not always beautiful, but resonant. He’d been saving that? His low tones didn’t always transmit fullness. He had to dig deep for these, and, when they missed, it was forgivable; when they didn’t, it wasn’t always comfortable, and, yet, this didn’t mar the whole.

A Journey To The Depths of Pain

The development of emotional and philosophical depth Wenwen Du and Ian Bostridge conveyed reinforces the power of this “lied” cycle and invites more and more listener investment. Bostridge, who has written a book on “Winterreise,” details each song, but not from a musically analytical perspective, but as part of the aesthetic topography of what Schubert intended. An intriguing decision of his, because while the book and the performance are musically apt, they are even more so human, granting us small doors to our own depth. If we were in this position – or similar ones to it, – so we can enter into the exploration with or without musical expertise. That doesn’t mean the music itself doesn’t stand up to be analyzed for its various contrasts, harmonies, textural developments, and the fact that we have only solo piano, so richly played by Wenwen Du; we can have both. A documentary with an orchestral version of this has also been made.

Each of the songs offers something unique, both in music and narrative, and each offers this perspective to the evolving story.  “Gute Nacht” the opening song, sets the scene – “Fremde bin ich eingezogen, Fremd zieh ich wieder aus,” the melancholy awareness that his beloved is out of reach. Disappointment envelopes him, and as he proceeds, we learn that hope of an alternative is impossible. A longer song than most, it takes us past the weather vane and such growing awareness to the “Gefrorne Tränen,” which awaken him to the facts of his own sorrow. These tears scald and can melt ice, he discovers, thus providing the downbeat for what is to follow. In fact, he realizes that what he feels is beyond nature, as these tears. Indeed, he is on a journey in winter that is not the winter that nature orchestrates. It will not end with spring, but rather in a permanent, frozen state. Pseudo-nature it is, this Winter Journey, “Frühlingstraum” – Spring is a dream. The leaves on the windows are painted, not real, and as such mock him. Even the Linden tree, “Der Lindenbaum,” a famous song of the cycle, only promises rest; once it was part of nature’s cycle, but now no more. Rest will come only elsewhere, it foreshadows, as do the other images, the babbling stream, the “Irrilicht,” the Will o’Wisp – not to life and vitality, movement and renewal but to stillness, dry gullies and the dry stream bed.

In other words, movement from the vitality of nature and the human heart move steadily and relentlessly toward stillness and death, the inevitable end. It is especially abrupt for the young Singer as he tells his tale. Peter Pears, the well-known British tenor, said once that the Schubert’s “Winterreise” seemed fit for an older man to sing, someone who has been seasoned by life’s challenges. Yet, it was the young, soon to-die 31-year-old Schubert who created both narrative and melodic scenes with an awareness that belied his own age. In “Die greise Kopf,” in fact, he himself cannot believe that he is not old, his hair gray, and that he must endure the loss that in nature usually comes later, now, when young. When the Bostridge as Singer even begs “Der Krahe,” the crow, to let him see at least, faithfulness until death – “laß mich endlich sehn /Treue bis zum Grabe…” – we see how he wrestles with that painful paradox. He is neither young nor old, male nor female, human solely, and that casts an even longer shadow.

Bringing it Home

In the last songs, Bostridge brings this home. “Die Post” and “Das Wirthaus,” usually signs of life and social contact, provide different landmarks. Bostridge does not skimp here in the slightest as he leads to the inevitable conclusion.  The repetition of “Mein Herz,” my heart, bring him not only to the recognition of loss, but how he is still vigorous in showing us. The short refrain piques, and as Bostridge steps forward on stage, it invites and rankles. “Im Dunkeln wird mir wohler sein/ I should fare better in the dark,” then he sings, ruefully. He speeds up in “ Täuschung,” Delusion, showing through his quick tempo how aspiration may blind us to our own knowledge. Then, the finale, almost empty of everything, Bostridge carves out the image of the Hurdy Gurdy man, into whose hands his songs will perhaps be sung one day.

And they stop, Bostridge and Wenwen Du, the music and words, with its evocation of a human sojourn that remains bearable only in its exquisite beauty. Isn’t there more? Won’t there be?

If you are able, to hear, see, savor this extraordinary work of art, through the gifts of Ian Bostridge, and Wenwen Du, who bring out not only Schubert’s vision but their own, and perhaps ours, by all means do, and maybe more than once.

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