Baritone Peter Harvey delivers a unique recording of Schubert's popular song-cycle Winterreise which, alongside Die Schone Mullerin, provides one of the greatest challenges in the lieder repertoire. This recording demonstrates why he can frequently be heard on radio broadcasts and in concert halls across the world.
Peter leads the listener on an intense, dramatic journey; his expressive baritone perfectly captures the bleak emotions of the wanderer in this beautiful work. Harvey's historically informed interpretation is further enhanced by Gary Cooper who performs on an early 19th century fortepiano. This collaborative attention to authenticity creates the atmospheric and distinctive sound world that Schubert intended.
Peter feels a personal connection to this work and his absolute understanding of the work really helps draw the listener in. Peter has written the foreward to the work himself and you can read his insightful views below.
For fans of lieder this recording is surely not to be missed.
"Harvey's suave baritone is one of the best on record."
The Sunday Times
"If there were to be a voice of God, this is what it would sound like."
Franz Schubert (1797 - 1828) Winterreise, Op.89, D.911
Winterreise is a song cycle with which I have been fascinated since long before I started to have serious notions of singing. The bitter-sweet musical language and bleak text chimed well with my adolescent self, and, much later in life, I find that it still resonates. Having worked so much in the world of ‘historical performance', for this recording it was natural to look afresh at how we might approach the piece. Certain decisions were easy to take - the use of a fortepiano, for instance - but others, such as which transpositions to adopt (baritones sing the songs in lower keys than the original, which had a tenor voice in mind), whether to reinstate Müller's text in the places where Schubert modified it, and how to order the songs, were interesting questions to consider.
In using a copy of an 1823 Brodmann piano (by David Winston) for this recording, our intention was to recreate something of the sound world Schubert would have known. Rather than using equal temperament, the instrument was tuned in a modified form of Valotti temperament, favouring keys with fewer sharps and flats, whilst accommodating more extreme ones. Working on Winterreise with a fortepiano was a revelation, for such an instrument proves marvellously flexible, with dynamics and colours unavailable to the modern grand piano - indeed, the piano is capable of such extremes of pianissimo that the sounds of certain keyboard and pedal actions ocasionally become audible. Our focus throughout this recording has been to convey the spirit of a real performance, and to tell the story with honesty and immediacy. In doing so, we were inspired by the special sund qualities made possible in using such an instrument, so haunting and far removed from the powerful, strong tones of a modern instrument.
The combination of light strings and dampers means that the strings can be allowed to reverberate in a highly atmospheric way, while the ‘moderator' (a subtly adjustable felt muffler) allows the singer to sing in a way which would be difficult to balance with a modern instrument, creating a sense of performing for an intimate audience. In singing Winterreise, no matter what size the hall, there are many moments when one has the impression of drawing into oneself, essential to the portrayal of the inner drama of the piece. Another consequence of the light stringing is that lower transpositions can be used without risk of muddying the sound. This gave us greater freedom to use key relationships which adhere more closely to Schubert's original scheme, which is at odds with common practice, where the standard ‘medium voice' editions employ a mixture of transposed and untransposed keys. We were thus able to preserve a subliminal aspect of the work's beauty - the colour of the silence between the songs, and the frisson generated at the first chord of the following piece. An example would be the resolution of the silence between ‘Der Wegweiser' (F minor) and ‘Das Wirtshaus' (Eb major), whose particular poignancy is lost without
this sinking downwards into the major key.
It was interesting to consider Schubert's various subtle changes to Müller's text. They tend towards a tauter expression, removing any suggestion of comic overtones or misconstructions, which Schubert clearly felt were of some importance, since o two occasions his alterations break the rhyme scheme. In ‘Der Wegweiser' Müller's third verse begins: "Weiser stehen auf den Straßen" - by the roads - which Schubert changes to "Wegen" - by the ways - ensuring that the Wanderer is still fixed firmly in the wilderness; in ‘Im Dorfe' the villagers simply sleep, where Müller has them snore, which carries the risk that an overzealous interpreter might distract from the austerity of the scene with a comical portrayal of the word. There seems every reason to trust Schubert's instincts with regard to these minor, but considered, modifications. Even the title itself was abbreviated by Schubert from "Die Winterreise" to simply "Winterreise", omitting the definite article in a way which makes for a briefer, bolder title, and possibly also hints that this is more than a literal account of a single journey, and has a wider, symbolic meaning. The order in which Müller published, and in which Schubert encountered and then set the poems, is mentioned elsewhere, but from a musical perpective, the logic of Schubert's sequence of songs is incontestable, and it is with an inexorable sense of direction that this drama of an increasingly disordered mind unfolds. Considering these practical questions helps determine the broad nature of a performance; ultimately, however, the overriding requirement is to enter into this barren landscape with all the imagination one can muster, taking a journey into what one hopes will otherwise remain rarely visited recesses of one's own mind.
For Winterreise is as much a psychological journey as a literal one. The narrative, such as it is, is simply told: the protagonist has apparently been living in the household of his beloved; it would seem that he has been there as a tutor of some kind - a poet or musician, perhaps - who has become entangled with his young charge. Despite her love for him, and the mother's apparent approval, the father evidently has other plans for his daughter. He leaves out of necessity, and as a Wanderer - that Romantic archetype - sets out on a harrowing journey where he finds no consolation, either in human company, the natural world, or religion. It ends with him contemplating a bleak future where he is left to wander alone and without hope. This is the bare outline, but it is remarkable, during the course of the whole work, how hazy and two-dimensional this external reality remains. We are given no hint as to the name, character or appearance of the Wanderer's sweetheart, and the world around him is represented by a series of images - a river, a tree, a leaf a crow, and so forth - whose interest lies not in any intrinsic characteristics they possess, rather in the symbolic meaning he projects onto them. He repeatedly sees a likeness (‘Bild') of himself and his state of mind reflected in this inanimate, frozen world (‘Auf dem Flusse' and ‘Mut', for instance), and finds significance in everything he beholds (the wind in ‘Die Wetterfahne', for instance, and again, playing with his hopes in ‘Letzte Hoffnung'). Thus, the featureless, snow-shrouded outer world is held up as a frozen mirror to the turmoil of his vivid inner one.
In this gloomy landscape there is a frequent subversion of conventional poetical imagery. ‘White' represents cold and death snce it is now the opposite of ‘green'; almost everything light or bright has negative connotations - the illusory nature of the will-'o-the-wisp and the beckoning light in ‘Täuschung', the glorious light he finds so oppressive in ‘Einsamkeit' and the final yearning for darkness in ‘Die Nebensonnen'. In the icy surroundings he ironically cherishes the fact that his heart is frozen (in ‘Erstarrung'), since, like a locket, it contains the only image he possesses of his sweetheart. The poetic stand-bys of blossom, flowers and lush grass have greater weight for bearing the opposite of their usual meaning - these emblems of spring are dead, withered or imaginary. Two animals carrying particular inverted symbolism appear in the narrative: the crow, vulture-like, becomes an ironic symbol of constancy (‘Die Krähe'); the various dogs, hardly in the spirit of man's best friend, symbolise rejection, first baying as he leaves at the start of his journey (‘Gute Nacht'), then denying him any welcome in the village (‘Im Dorfe'), and finally, as they snarl around the organ-grinder (‘Der Leiermann'), foreshadowing what we imagine will be his permanent marginalisation from society.
Isolation is the central theme in Winterreise; fellow humans are conspicuous by their absence and the only speech - other than his own mutterings - is the imagined beckoning by the linden tree (‘Der Lindenbaum'). The cottage where he seeks refuge in ‘Rast', and where, presumably, he sees the frost on the window-panes (‘Frühlingstraum') and fails to receive any letters (‘Die Post'), seems to contain no hint of the charcoal-burner himself. However, ‘Das Wirtshaus' brings a shadowy sense of human presence; in this poignant song, the graveyard is ironically likened to an inn, as he considers finding repose there in death. He is surely contemplating suicide, but as a suicide he would be denied a christian burial - hence there being no room at the inn. Clearly, this is what leads to his rejection of religion in ‘Mut', the following song. However, does Schubert perhaps add another layer to Müller's meaning? The chordal piano accompaniment, with its descant counter-melody in the second verse, is suggestive of a service taking place within (or, somewhat gothically, of a lone organist playing). As he stands listening to (or just imagining) the sounds coming from the church, the sense of exclusion is deepened by Schubert: the Wanderer has not only lost his faith; he turns away realising that he can no longer be a part of the human society that the church also represents. As though too painful to contemplate, even the image of his beloved is absent until the penultimate song, ‘Die Nebensonnen', when he finally sees a vision of her eyes in a ‘parhelion' (a rare and short-lived phenomenon where two additional mirages of the sun appear, reflected in ice crystals suspended in the atmosphere).
His bitter realisation that her eyes have no more reality for him than these ‘mock suns' proves cathartic. When, wild and dishevelled, he acts on his defiant decision to face the world again (in ‘Mut'), the person who draws his attention is a vagrant organ-grinder, ignored by all but the dogs. This old man - the only other human being to appear in the entire song-cycle - is the journey's final, telling symbol. In him, does the Wanderer not finally see his truest likeness yet: a vision of his future self, his aged Doppelgänger?
© Peter Harvey, 2010
Winterreise D.911 represents one of Franz Schubert's towering achievements as a composer. It was with this particular work, alongside his other song cycles, Die schöne Müllerin D.795 and Schwanengesang D.957, that he single-handedly redefined the Lieder genre. Indeed, the three cycles arguably form the greatest accomplishment of the entire tradition, and the comparatively young age at which Schubert wrote these works of intense musical maturity makes the attainment all the more impressive. The earliest of the three cycles, Die schöne Müllerin, was composed in just his twenty-seventh year, while the latter two cycles were composed at the ages of thirty and thirty-one - which were, sadly, to be the final two years of his life.
For a composer whose life was cut so tragically short, Schubert was nothing less than hugely prolific. Along with the three song cycles mentioned above, he wrote some 600 Lieder - a body of work whose importance and value is difficult to overestimate - as well as making vital contributions to a number of other genres in the form of chamber and instrumental music, symphonies, operas and religious works. The variety of his output reflects the range of circles in which Schubert had been present from the earliest days of his musical training. Born and brought up in a reasonably affluent part of Vienna his musical talent became evident at an early age and was nurtured by his father, an amateur musician. However, it was through the church that Schubert gained the bulk of his musical education and, after coming to the attention of Antonio Salieri, he was awarded a choral sholarship in 1808 to attend the Imperial Seminary in Vienna, known as the Stadtkonvikt, where the choristers of the Court Chapel were schooled.
Through his time in the seminary, where he remained until 1813, he was to become exposed to the gamut of secular as well as sacred music, and it was here that he first encountered works by the Viennese masters of the day, and in particular opera and song. Following an unsatisfactory period of three years training to be a teacher and then working at his father's school, Shubert turned to composition full time, only teaching when necessary to fund his activities as a composer. His musical maturity came early, arguably from the age of around twenty but, despite this, recognition of his music was lean throughout his lifetime, and not often heard in public concerts. Few of his works were published during his lifetime and he had only short periods of prosperity, often living a meagre existence, close to poverty. The majority of his work became more widely known through a regular series of Schubertiades - informal evenings that took place mainly in private houses, where Schubert performed much of his own music, and in particular his song cycles.
Of the many theories surrounding the cause of Schubert's premature death, one of the most commonly held beliefs is that he had been suffering from syphilis for some years by the time of his death, although that was not the official verdict that was reached. One thing that is certain is that his health was beginning to fail as he approached his late twenties and his thoughts of death and what was to follow, influenced some of his greatest works, and particularly his final two song cycles.
The penultimate of these cycles, Winterreise (or Winter Journey), is an extensive setting of texts that are a descriptive and narrative monologue of a spurned lover who sets out in the dead of night on a journey of sorrow, leaving his intended behind. It was Schubert's second cycle that set texts by the poet Wilhelm Müller (1794-1827), the first being his earliest song cycle, Die schöne Müllerin, the story of a young man who falls in love with a woman who is considered to be above his station. While Schubert had only limited renown during his own lifetime, this first and second of his cycles gained some recognition, both becoming mainstays of his regular Schubertiades from the time of their composition.
The twenty-four songs of Winterreise were composed in two clear sections: the first twelve were completed in February of 1827 with the remaining twelve penned in October of the same year. This process of composition reflects how the poems themselves first appeared; Müller published the initial twelve in a periodical during 1823 and later published the collection again in 1824 with a further twelve poems interspersed between the original twelve. Schubert first encountered the initial collection in the periodical, and when he came to compose the cycle some years later he was to set the first twelve poems in their original order of 1823. It's unclear when Schubert actually encountered the remainder of the poems from 1824 and, as a result, it has been suggested that he may have first considered Winterreise as a song cycle consisting only of the first dozen poems, and as a much shorter work. It would appear that Schubert formed a second part to the cycle in place of Müller's revised sequence for the poems, using his own preferred order for the later twelve poems.
© Adam Binks, 2010