First, I must admit that I am more familiar with Schubert’s “Wintereisse” through the voice of Ian Bostridge, but sung ‘straight’ with nothing else but a piano to accompany the tenor. Last year, I was completely absorbed by Bostridge and international pianist, Thomas Adès’s intimate concert at the Barbican, when it was performed to coincide with Bostridge’s book, “Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession.” Bostridge’s take on this landmark piece encapsulates the literary movement, Romanticism, which also inspired many cultural icons, including Samuel Beckett.
“Wintereisse” is regarded as one of the greatest song-cycles ever written. The emotional impact, the sense of longing and loss, also influenced German poet Wilhelm Müller, who was known by his contemporaries as the ‘German Bryon.’ Schubert’s music and German poetry stirs and captivates audiences, and gets them to ask, ‘who is this young man in despair? Why does he depart and wander into the cold? And why does he lament lost love? Schubert – who died at the young age of 32 – has written a work that hones in on the darker reflections of man, the meaning of existence and the human condition.
Now, we are back again at the Barbican, a year later, to hear the same delightful voice, but not to the tone or source of Schubert, but Hans Zender in a multimedia staging directed and designed by Netia Jones.
The Britten Sinfonia, robustly conducted by Baldur Brönnimann, are located on the right side of the stage and begin with scratching, blowing, wind-like sounds. It doesn’t get straight into the first piece ‘Gute Nacht’, but has you lingering for a while as it builds to a formidable crescendo, subtly and elegantly ceased by violinist Thomas Gould with the beginning bars of our much-loved first piece. Zender’s music distorts, echoes, re-records, and stretches – you simply don’t know what to expect. With more than twenty musicians of the Britten Sinfonia performing, ranging from a guitarist, harpist and accordion player, the work is unusual and full-on experimental. Though there are many moments where the impressive music sends you off, drifting to a cold and empty place.
First performed in 1993, Zender’s re-laying of the work exemplifies the loneliness and depression of our protagonist, providing a different interpretation to the Winter’s journey for a modern audience. This interpretation being far more distant and harsher, and, at times, uncomfortable through Jones’s visual projections, bold lights and moving imagery. Bostridge had performed Schubert’s cycle for a TV film, under the direction of David Alden, which was first broadcasted in 1997, and there in the background are huge projections of Bostridge’s younger self, singing the same words as his current 51-year-old self.
This somber imagery is mesmerising – Bostridge is confronted face-to-face with his youth. One side of the screen is a side profile of himself while the other is his former self looking back at him. It is a pinnacle moment – audiences’ will reflect on their youth in a split second. The use of black and white, even gray, instill Winter hues and allude to memory and recollection. The monochrome display and use of film also suggest various genres from film noir, black and white film and Weimar cabaret.
Jones’s multimedia moves us into freezing temperatures, murky shadows, fields and landscapes of snow, rain storms and oceanic waves. The camera, also known as a ‘dark mirror’, is a powerful source of presenting another version of reality, which rings true for many film-makers. Yet Jones’s vision, although ambitious and unique, can be distracting and overwhelming. Sometimes, it felt like I was watching a cheap karaoke film, except we, the audience, aren’t allowed to sing along.
However, Bostridge did not disappoint. His tenor voice sung with deep sorrow, which is spellbinding for an audience, which would most likely be filled with many of his fans. My favourite pieces – “Der Lindenbaum” (the Linden Tree), “Der Leiermann” (the Hurdgy-Gurdy man), “Die Pos”t (the Post), “Die Krähe” (the Crow) – were just as eloquently and vividly sung. In summary, I prefer my Winterreise ‘straight’, not shaken, but any Bostridge devotee would be silly to miss out.