Ian Bostridge & Mitsuko Uchida at Wigmore Hall – Winterreise

Winterreise, D911

Ian Bostridge (tenor) & Mitsuko Uchida (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 14 April, 2011
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Ian Bostridge. Photograph: Simon FowlerI reviewed this tenor and pianist when they performed “Winterreise” in the Barbican Hall in October 2008. I remarked then on the unanimity of their conception and of their execution. Both artists adapted their approach in the smaller, more intimate venue of Wigmore Hall for this sell-out recital. Where Ian Bostridge had somewhat compromised his voice in the wide spaces of the Barbican with some parlando effects, here he left everything to his basically lyric tenor with its orientation towards the head. Mitsuko Uchida veered even more towards quiet playing.

The interpretation followed a similar pattern. As the traveller trudged off on his journey in ‘Gute Nacht’ he was not yet as estranged and fatalistic as he was soon to become. He could still recapture optimism and the shadow in the moonlight which accompanied him was not yet a threat but the endearing symbol of romance and tranquillity which the moon represents in German lyric poetry – and Bostridge imparted a suitable magic to his singing of these lines. Such delusions were quickly dispersed, however: the tempo accelerated in a business-like way for the third stanza, the irony behind the phrase “Die Liebe liebt das Wandern – Gott hat sie so gemacht” was clearly transmitted and the last lines of this opening song were delivered through gritted teeth. From the on there was never any doubt of the traveller’s hostility to what had happened. Reference to his former beloved evoked disdain and sometimes delivered with a sneer. His past experiences were laced with scorn, some of it directed towards himself.

Dame Mitsuko Uchida. Photograph: Richard AvedonThe general concept as the performers seemed to perceive the cycle in 2008 remained unchanged. The subject was portrayed as descending into insanity, the features with which Bostridge previously saw this putative journey present again. His maniacal mobility on the platform, or the feverish tempo adopted both in ‘Rückblick’ and ‘Der stürmische Morgen’, the latter virtually overlapping with ‘Täuschung’, so short was the break between them. Even the affectionate address to the accompanying crow seemed to confirm that this was a man whose responses were no longer rational. If anything, tempos and dynamics have become polarised. ‘Der Lindenbaum’ was taken unusually slowly. Numerous powerful crescendos were scattered through the work and matched by telling pianissimos. Among the expressive devices were a number of subtle tenutos which made the listener reflect on the feelings and ideas being underlined. Uchida discovered plenty of new possibilities in the piano-writing, bringing out a counter-melody in ‘Der Lindenbaum’ for example. Even the absence of sound could be significant. There were moments of silence where I had never heard them before in the cycle: before the last verse of ‘Der Lindenbaum’, again in ‘Auf dem Flusse’ and most tellingly in the hallucinatory ‘Der greise Kopf’, a pivotal song in this interpretation, representing the very depths of dejected pessimism. The sudden thought of the reality of death (“Wie weit noch bis zur Bahre!”) was followed by a shocked pause which greatly exceeded the written crotchet rest.

Musically Bostridge was at the same time more adventurous and more fastidious in the smaller auditorium. There were several examples of lyrical singing which was beautiful as sound: the modulation into A flat in ‘Erstarrung’, and the opening section of ‘Frühlingstraum’ stood out. Here he and Uchida could not have made a more telling contrast of the three sections, the graciously lilting dream, its interruption by the spiky rhythms and raucous cries of the birds, and the slow tolling of the 2/4 episode. For the final line of the song, as the traveller falls asleep, Bostridge gave us an exquisite ppp. Eventually Bostridge’s traveller returned to reality but without consolation. In ‘Der Wegweiser’ came the nihilistic realisation, at first tentative, then solidified with the augmentation of quavers into crotchets for the repetition of the final line. When he was refused entry to the inn/cemetery in the next song Bostridge turned his back to the audience in despair.

There was time for one final piece of hauntingly beautiful singing in the wilting phrase “Nun sind hinab die besten zwei” in the penultimate song before the encounter with the freezing beggar on the ice. Encounter, not meeting. There was no human contact between the two; our traveller had already said goodbye to human life. In ‘Der Leiermann’ Bostridge was glacially uninvolved, like a police officer giving evidence in court, totally mechanical.

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