According to Schubert’s friends, the composition of Winterreise in 1827, a year before his death, left the composer agitated and disturbed. Wilhelm Müller’s poetic journey starts with Gute Nacht, as a traveller walks away from us into a moonlit, snowy landscape. At the end of the cycle, The Signpost, he takes the path to his death. All very close to the bone for a composer with a terminal illness, and the first performance duly shocked his contemporaries. It’s good to report, then, that this superb, bold and harrowing new interpretation by the Austrian baritone Florian Boesch and English pianist Malcolm Martineau may just shock a whole new generation.
There are big choices here but crucially, every moment of this intimate collaboration has been thought through. Each emotional twist and turn is presented as another step on Schubert’s solitary winter journey, from the abandoned home of his loved one to a lonely grave. Boesch may not have an idiosyncratic voice like Fischer-Dieskau or Matthias Goerne, but he certainly has an individual style and a special way with poetry. His vocal mood-swings and unprecedented use of half-tones – at times more popular songster than classical lieder singer – sets him apart from the crowd.
Martineau deserves equal honours for a brilliantly individual interpretation that perfectly shadows the singer while allowing himself plenty of room for rubato. It’s hard to imagine Gerald Moore exhibiting this kind of angst, let alone most lieder singers of the past 40 years (Brigitte Fassbaender excepted).
The song Wasserflut is a good example. The stuttering piano accompaniment is beautifully responsive to Boesch’s halting vocals, but then Martineau well nigh threatens to destroy the keyboard on Boesch’s final anguished cry of “There is my beloved’s house”. Again, in Auf dem Fluße, the singer literally whispers into the frozen river, “My heart, do you recognise your image in this brook?” The half-tones, eloquent with despair, are followed by an almost suicidal cry of “Is there not beneath its crust, likewise a seething torrent?” And so it goes on. This wanderer is on what feels like a very contemporary emotional journey: Das Wirtshaus, where a graveyard is taken for an inn, is heartbreaking, and by Die Nebensonnen with its desperate yearning for death, I confess I was an emotional wreck.
Superbly recorded in a most natural acoustic, this is a Winterreise for today and a genuine must-hear.