Winterreise: Philip Langridge & David Owen Norris

Winterreise, D911

Philip Langridge (tenor) & David Owen Norris (fortepiano)

Reviewed by: John T. Hughes

Reviewed: 22 June, 2006
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

With David Owen Norris playing a fortepiano (the 1824 Broadwood on which he recorded “Winterreise” with David Wilson-Johnson on Hyperion?), one heard what was close to the sound of the instrument which Schubert used when he invited some friends to listen to his settings of Wilhelm Müller’s verses. Occasionally Norris did not release a note cleanly, with a resultant twang of little importance, but the less percussive sound of the fortepiano accords with the progress of the traveller through the bleak landscape. If its sound is drier than that of a modern Steinway, that too augments Philip Langridge’s vocal qualities.

Langridge’s voice is not the juiciest: top notes are there but do not ring. Nevertheless, it has the range of colours necessary to differentiate among the songs, from the opening “Gute Nacht”, in which the wanderer refers to his rejection by the girl, past the weather-vane, the linden-tree, the sleeping village and the graveyard until he requests the company of the numb-fingered old organ-grinder, to journey together to the end of hope.

The traveller’s perceived emptiness of life finds no relief, except for a moment in memory, when the mail-coach comes from the town where his beloved lived. Even the friendly light in “Täuschung” is mere delusion, as is the brief rallying of spirits in “Mut”. Langridge’s colouring and varying of his tone to convey each song’s text was eloquent. “Mut” (Courage) lies in the middle of the last five songs, the other four being, I have always thought, the most lacerating of the cycle. The signpost (“Der Wegweiser”) points to a road down which nobody has ever returned, and down it we encounter the ‘inn’ (“Das Wirthaus”), the graveyard with no welcoming accommodation. By employing nuances and tonal shading Langridge drew out the bitterness of the situation. The enigmatic “Die Nebensonnen”, whose opening lines always challenge my tear-ducts musically, their melody sparse yet hard-hitting, prepares me for the most harrowing song of all. The organ-grinder (“Der Leiermann”) is the only person whom the traveller meets on his winter journey: a man in as hopeless and desperate a position as he is. It is Hardyesque in its black irony. Taken slowly by Langridge and Norris, its emptiness, pain and apparent pointlessness were enhanced by their shading, phrasing and intensity, and the listener felt involved.

Ignore the fact that at this stage of his career Langridge’s tone is less fresh than of yore and listen to his and his colleague’s interpretation. Everybody will have a chance to do that, for the concert was recorded for release on a Wigmore Hall CD, to which I look forward.

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