Florian Boesch (baritone) & Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Recorded 27-31 January 2011 at All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, London
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This extraordinary performance comes across like a death rattle in music. The Austrian baritone Florian Boesch takes an extreme view of Schubert’s great cycle; he evokes mortality where other singers find mere despair, and he communes with his microphone at a level of intimacy that would be inaudible in a live setting. It’s a method actor’s Winterreise: Boesch inhabits the role with such engagement that one almost fears for his wellbeing.
Death comes not as the end but as a fellow-traveller on Boesch’s winter journey. It makes its presence felt as early as ‘Die Krähe’ (The crow), only the fifteenth of the cycle’s twenty-four songs, when the protagonist becomes reconciled to his impending doom and embraces the arrival of the predatory omen of death. In the ensuing ‘Letzte Hoffnung’ (Last hope) his throes continue, and by song seventeen, ‘Im Dorfe’ (In the village), he is utterly moribund. Too much too soon? Not with Boesch and his outstandingly empathic accompanist, Malcolm Martineau. In their hands ‘Der Wegweiser’ (The signpost) is the ghostly depiction of a dead man walking, and in ‘Das Wirtshaus’ (The inn) he is a wraith in the graveyard: a still, spectral figure who, at the line “Nun weiter denn, nur weiter” (Onwards, then, onwards), is clearly going nowhere.
Boesch dares much. Although the warm ambience of All Saints’ Church is not well captured here (microphones are placed too close to catch the resonant bloom), the singer uses producer Andrew Mellor’s near-pop-music acoustic to experiment with the dramatic possibilities of whispered singing. The opening song, ‘Gute Nacht’ (Goodnight), opens with a pianistic flourish, yet by the close it has attained the hushed stillness that will define the entire performance. ‘Gefror’ne Tränen’ (Frozen tears) is interior and troubled, while ‘Erstarrung’ (Numbness), which is often febrile in performance, is barely murmured.
Such a reading could be dismissed as wilful and self-indulgent were it not for the artistry with which it unfolds. The piano, generously to the fore in the sound-picture, is less an accompaniment than an actor in the drama. Martineau is yang to Boesch’s yin, and together they forge a convincing human duality. In ‘Die Wetterfahne’ (The weathervane) they are as one, each micro-ritardando flawlessly shared; in ‘Rast’ (Rest) the delirious soul imagines himself at rest while the piano, its feet in the real world, trudges on.
Boesch and Martineau are at their finest in ‘Frühlingstraum’ (Springtime dream). Their depiction of wracked sleep is astoundingly dramatic: the traveller is troubled by reveries from which he can neither flee nor wake, and in the closing stillness we may only guess at the horrors that await him as he falls back into slumber. There are devastating moments elsewhere, too. Midway through 'Der Lindenbaum’ (The linden tree) Boesch spits out the innocent word “Geselle” (friend) with savage irony, as if to underline the beguiling falseness of the tree, while in ‘Wasserflut’ (Torrent), as the traveller imagines the snow beckoning him, the word “auf” (away) is wrenched from his soul in an agonised howl.
The thrill of this bold, visceral interpretation is mitigated by some unfortunate flaws. At a technical level there is a problematic variation in recording levels between sessions, the worst example of which occurs at the opening of ‘Täuschung’ (Delusion), where the newly-loud piano also acquires a hint of distortion. As for Boesch and Martineau themselves, their extreme vision of the cycle leaves the antepenultimate ‘Mut!’ (Courage!) high and dry, for since it does not fit in with their overall interpretation they fail to make any sense of it. Most disappointingly of all, in the final song, ‘Der Leiermann’ (The Organ-grinder), Boesch’s determination to get closer than ever to the microphone is distractingly contrived, enough to undermine the sincerity of his performance as a whole.
Nevertheless, this remains an arresting Winterreise, one laden with invention. Texts and translations are included in the booklet. Do hear it – it will shred your nerves.