Wigmore Hall Live – Schubert’s Winterreise – Christopher Maltman & Graham Johnson

0 of 5 stars

Winterreise, D911

Christopher Maltman (baritone) & Graham Johnson (piano)

Recorded 11 February 2010 in Wigmore Hall, London

Reviewed by: Mark Valencia

Reviewed: October 2011
Duration: 77 minutes



Christopher Maltman and Graham Johnson embark upon a winter journey of the mind. Schubert’s great cycle to texts by Wilhelm Müller (the poet unacknowledged on the disc’s packaging save for a passing reference in Hilary Finch’s note for the booklet, which includes texts and English translations) emerges here as King Lear for voice and piano: a free-flowing monodrama whose figurehead, initially bruised but still in command of his emotions, undergoes a decline that plunges him through despair into insanity and annihilation. If Maltman is sometimes better at communicating the tenderness in Winterreise than the torture, there are moments in this subtle, insightful account where he lays bare the composer’s own syphilitic deterioration.

The opening song, ‘Gute Nacht’, proceeds steadily as baritone and pianist establish the protagonist’s apparent composure with a firm, purposeful tread. Johnson achieves a magical tenuto at the modulation into the major key, whereupon the first threads of vulnerability appear in Maltman’s characterisation: at “Will dich im Traum nicht stören” (I’ll not disturb your dreams), sung it seems to himself, the long descent begins into a fractured interiority. Maltman’s hesitation at the title words suggests finality as well as farewell; at this stage he intends to go gently into that gute Nacht.

As the first songs unfold, Müller’s hero (the anonymous wanderer’s frequent designation, ‘lover’, does not sit well in this interpretation) remains calm and level-headed. Here, as throughout, Maltman is abetted by some transcendent piano work from the incomparable Johnson – less an accompanist, more an extension of the singer’s adopted persona. Clouds only gather when, together, they inject a sense of incipient despair into the sixth song, ‘Wasserflut’ (Flood) and point the way to darker times ahead. During ‘Auf dem Flusse’ (On the river) Johnson lays a patina of ghostliness over the music and invites us to wonder what it is exactly that the man sees in his own ice-bound reflection. It is a chilling moment.

His urge to flee the mind-borne horror is tangible in the febrile ‘Rückblick’ (A backward glance); but he cannot, because it all lies within. Instead he stumbles into the hallucinatory world of ‘Irrlicht’ (Will-o’-the-wisp) – for which the singer discards his usual tonal beauty in order to present a troubling evocation of mental fragility. The ‘Rast’ (Rest) that follows is, ironically, a restless affair – indicative of emotional rather than physical exhaustion – and thus as one with the fitful, fast-changing dreams depicted in ‘Frühlingstraum’ (Dream of spring).

The energetic entr’acte, ‘Die Post’ (The mail-coach), a throwback to a merrier Schubert (the romanticised figure of Lilac Time) is tinged by the performers with desperation, like a brave attempt at a smile when hope is lost. Such pretence is swiftly cast aside in ‘Der greise Kopf’ (The hoary head), with its famous image of the hero seeing himself as an old man thanks to the frost in his hair. Johnson draws this song out to a membrane-stretch while Maltman once more jettisons beauty of tone and creates a disturbing, perturbed mood. By the time Schubert’s dogs start to bark in ‘Im Dorfe’ (In the village), the external world has ceased to matter. This is a turning point as the hero begins his final retreat into torment. Only a brief moment of lucidity in ‘Täuschung’ (Delusion) breaks the decline. The last two lines of ‘Der Wegweiser’ (The signpost) crystallise the man’s journey in this reading – “Eine Strasse muss ich gehen, / Die noch Keiner ging zurück” (a road I must travel from which no man has ever returned).

There is madness in the very stability of ‘Die Nebensonnen’ (Phantom suns). The near-surreal lyric is rendered disconcerting by the matter-of-factness of its delivery, as the apparent lucidity of the singer’s sustained legato plays against the arresting notion of a man staring at three suns in the sky. By the time Johnson elides into the concluding song, ‘Der Leiermann’ (The organ-grinder), reality has receded entirely; and, unlike ‘Im Dorfe’, no animal sounds are heard when “die Hunde knurren“ (the dogs snarl) because there are none. Johnson’s organ-grinder is the gatekeeper to oblivion, and Maltman’s wanderer follows him in.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content