When Schubert penned his now famous song cycle Winterreise, or Winter Journey, he had a little over a year to live. Barely into his 30s, the composer was dying of syphilis – and/or the mercury that was being used to treat it – and it is to this that many attribute the bleakness and despair that seems to permeate the composer’s setting of poetry by Wilhelm Müller.
When the cycle was complete, Schubert invited his friends to hear the work. “Come to Schober’s today and I will play you a cycle of terrifying songs; they have affected me more than has ever been the case with any other songs,” he said, as his close friend Joseph von Spaun related. “He then, with a voice full of feeling, sang the entire Winterreise for us,” Spaun said. “We were altogether dumbfounded by the sombre mood of these songs, and Schober said that one song only, Der Lindenbaum, had pleased him. Thereupon Schubert leaped up and replied: ‘These songs please me more than all the rest, and in time they will please you as well.’” The cycle has enchanted and fascinated listeners ever since and is now held up as the pinnacle of German Lieder.
Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto brought plenty of bleakness to his magisterial performance of the songs with Ukrainian pianist Igor Tchetuev on Wednesday night. Eyes down, clearing his throat, he brought a bitter introversion to the opening song Gute Nacht, in which the nameless protagonist begins his travels in the night, haunted by memories of an unhappy love affair.
Australian audiences last heard Furlanetto when he came out to sing King Philip II – a psychologically rich role for which he is renowned – in Opera Australia’s 2015 Don Carlo. “To watch this musical dramatist at work is an object lesson in judicious use of text,” Clive Paget wrote at the time, and Furlanetto brought these skills to bear on Müller’s poetry, but it was perhaps his overall sense of structure and arc that was most compelling in this performance. Furlanetto traced a journey from a fiery, mercurial anguish in the earlier songs, through a more contemplative lyricism in the middle of the cycle and finally to an almost whimsical, dislocated grief and semi-acceptance in the final songs, bordering on the edge of madness.
That’s not to say there weren’t moments of exquisite detail. His Die Wetterfahne (The Weathervane) resounded with anguish while the words “Ei Tränen, meine Tränen” (Oh tears, my tears) in Gefror’ne Tränen (Frozen Tears) cascaded like molten lava into tenebrous vocal depths. Written for tenor but often sung by baritones – lyric baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was one of the most highly respected proponents of the cycle – Winterreise took on a dark heaviness in the hands of the bass, whose fine, resonant tone filled the hall.
Furlanetto’s taper on the words “Bis ich die Erde she’” (until I see the soil) in the fourth song, Erstarrung (Numbness) were imbued with heartbreaking pathos while the final stanza’s “Fließt auch ihr Bild dahin!” (her image will melt away, too!) was sung with equal parts desperate anger and pain.
Auf dem Fluße (On The River) was a particular highlight, Tchetuev and Furlanetto giving the song a creeping, cabaret feel, while Irrlicht (Will O’ The Wisp) found a softer-edged longing that offset the raw grief of the earlier songs.
The bass’s vocal athleticism was on display in Die Post (The Post), Furlanetto chasing Tchetuev’s horn calls on the piano while Furlanetto’s crow (Die Krähe) circled in lazy arcs, a note of fantasy touching the singer’s voice as he addressed the bird before the spikey madness of Letzte Hoffnung (Last Hope).
Furlanetto was solid-as-a-rock vocally, his diction clear and precise, carrying resonantly into the hall. But in the intimate space of City Recital Hall his powerful instrument was almost overwhelming at times and a few more moments of quiet intimacy may have given some of the wilder moments more power. Nonetheless, the journey was beautifully crafted from start to finish and Furlanetto’s voice is a thing of beauty.
The final songs captured an air of transcendence. The apocalyptic Der stürmische Morgen (The Stormy Morning) saw a brief return of the rage that had dominated the earlier songs but Die Nebensonnen (The False Suns) had a radiant, prayer-like quality before the death-knell piano drone of the final song’s hurdy-gurdy – Tchetuev giving the chords, which hammer in a sense of harmonic stasis, an implacable sense of inevitability. Here Furlanetto’s voice was spacious and mystical, his final notes haunting enough to cause a shiver up your spine.
Ferruccio Furlanetto and Igor Tchetuev perform a programme of Russian songs at City Recital Hall, Sydney, September 29 and at Melbourne Recital Centre October 2.