Die Winterreise (Schubert/Zender)

Die Winterreise (Schubert/Zender)

Steve Davislim (tenor)
with WASO New Music Ensemble
Roger Smalley (conductor)

Winthrop Hall


reviewed by Neville Cohn





It takes a good deal of courage to tinker with an established masterpiece. It’s an enterprise fraught with hazard and it seldom works well. Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s piano work Pictures at an Exhibition is a superb exception to the rule. Hamilton Harty’s dreadful, thick-textured re-visiting of Handel’s Water Music is its antithesis – as are Stokowski’s vulgar transcriptions for orchestra of some of Bach’s organ works.

So one listened with particular interest to Hans Zender’s reworking of the piano part of that greatest of song cycles – Schubert’s Die Winterreise – for voice and orchestra.

Let it be said at once, though, that, some occasional weakenings of concentration aside when synchronisation was less than ideal, Roger Smalley and his instrumental forces brought unfailing seriousness of purpose to a tricky task, no mean achievement, given the difficulties posed by the score.

This was no small enterprise. But was the game worth the candle? With the exception of a few lieder, in which the essence of the song’s enshrined emotions was faithfully preserved, I would have to say not really. Too frequently, there was a fussiness about the arrangements, a detail-overload that tended to get in the way of the music rather than allowing its message to reach the listener untrammelled as I’d imagine Schubert might have wanted it to. In stead, the transcription reminded me of a Christmas tree, the branches of which are so festooned with baubles that they sag under the weight rather than remaining straight as they do in their natural state.

I am convinced, though, that this was no casual re-ordering of Schubert’s masterpiece; an undertaking of this complexity must surely have been a labour of love. But after the most careful attention to the performance, I am not persuaded that it is of equal worth to the original, let alone an improvement on it. Surely, the purpose of such an initiative is to provide a listening experience at least as satisfying as the original. In The Post, for instance, the orchestration lent a curious ponderousness to the music. And, earlier, in A Backward Glance, the instrumentation could not match the restless buoyancy of the piano original.

But there were meaningful moments in individual lieder, where there was evidence of imaginative inspiration. The last two lieder of the cycle are a case in point. Here, Zender’s orchestration engaged the attention in a most convincing way, underscoring, as it did, the suggestion that the traveller, exhausted as much in mind as in body, hallucinates as he looks into the sky and sees not one sun but three – and this evocation of mental disintegration was as powerful in its way as intimations of despair beyond despair in The Hurdy-Gurdy Man that brings the cycle to its close.

I admired, too, the way in which the instrumentation gave point and meaning to Dream of Spring to which tenor Steve Davislim brought an altogether fitting sense of tenderness. Throughout, in fact, Davislim sang with great expressiveness although his diction was not always clear.

Now Schubert, as is well known, had a penchant for going on too long (as do some critics). But in Winterreise, he got it right, gloriously so. In every sense – melodic invention, evocation of mood, duration – it’s an unsullied exercise in perfection.

However, by its very nature, an elaborate orchestration of this sort cannot be played with the agility and fleetness that a single accompanying keyboard instrument is capable of in the right hands – and this was much apparent in a good deal of this orchestrated version of the cycle which unfolded in so protracted a way with its added instrumental preludes here and there, that it got in the way of, rather than enhancing, listening pleasure. This was a winter’s journey that took too long. This was all the more so due to an interval midway through the cycle (could this have been due to the requirements of the ABC Classic FM which broadcast the performance live nationwide?) which noticeably diluted the atmosphere so painstakingly built up in the first half of the work.

A program note mentions the conventional presentation of the cycle – wo gents in tuxedos and a Steinway grand. At more than few points during the performance, I longed for just that. Having instrumentalists walking around the auditorium or walking OUT of the auditorium – and then tracing their steps back to the platform mid-performance – was at first surprising, then unsettling and ultimately exasperating.

Copyright 2003 Neville Cohn

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