Robert Lloyd Winterreise

Winterreise, D911

Robert Lloyd (bass) &
Julius Drake (piano)

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 14 May, 2004
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

For this recital, in aid of the MOMA WALES complex at Machynlleth, Messrs Lloyd and Drake made no charge.

Winterreise is a young man’s journey, jilted and alone, through a winter of the soul, while traversing a snowbound land. Robert Lloyd writes of the cycle as “a long, dark tunnel of extreme emotion with only the tiniest chink of light visible at the very end. These songs are best considered as duets, each artist contributing equally, with a single artistic goal.” That last sentence is a crucial one.

Lloyd is in his sixties, I calculate. His voice is, shall I say, mature. I heard a lightish bass, not opulent – and less distinctive, say, than Hans Hotter’s.

Yet, Lloyd can do much. He makes richer and deepens his projection at will; he’ll lighten his tone still further; a single note casts a sudden pall or pierces the dark. He can weep; he can bark. Lloyd’s interpretation is subtle and searching – and he projects his artistry selflessly, with a high order of interpretative skill.

The song cycle is by a youngish man about a young man. Yet it needs someone of greater years and experience to present this music even adequately. “I keep returning to it and discovering new layers,” says Lloyd. (Set the ripe desolation of Schubert’s Winterreise side by side with the brilliant but juvenile anguish of Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen – or wait 23 further years to match Winterreise with ‘Der Abschied’ from Das Lied von der Erde.)

This is the third time, at the Wigmore Hall, that a performance of Winterreise has moved me beyond tears. Brigitte Fassbaender’s warm, sure, immediate presence hugged me into a world of rich dejection – impossible to capture on disc. Ernst Haefliger, aged 76, sang distantly yet unforgettably of the winter chill, the cold and the snow – and, likewise, of ice that froze that young man’s burning heart.

Now, Lloyd and Drake, the duet, undertake and sing the young man’s journey. The singing of the piano had me on the edge of my seat. The introductory preludes were jewelled miniatures of expression – riveting in their own right, precious. The piano stated the terms and conditions for each song: the setting, the mood, and the pace. The piano proclaimed every mood change.

If anything, the performance revealed Winterreise to be an extraordinary piano sonata whose crucial and exacting vocal obbligato makes unbelievably subtle, emotion-probing, expressiveness-testing demands on the singer. From this vantage-point, I honour Robert’s Lloyd’s professional generosity in dedicating himself in this way to Schubert’s masterpiece – as I am eager, equally, to honour Julius Drake’s masterly and forlornly magisterial pianism.

Through this approach, locations are clearly distinguished and variety returns to this poesy of gloom. The piano decisively delineates the progress, the process, of this wandering journey – the field, the linden tree, the river in flow, the chasm, the charcoal-burner’s hut, the graveyard, the vision of three suns (as if from William Blake) and, most macabre, the organ-grinder playing with numb fingers, barefoot on the ice. (I suddenly remembered the Button-Maker appearing on Peer Gynt’s deathbed.)

I shall never forget this magic, this artistry, this duet.

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