Peter Harvey - Winterreise - MusicWeb International

The documentation accompanying this hybrid SACD is excellent, except for one important detail. Some purchasers may get a bit of a shock when they play the disc for the first time and discover that, contrary to what is advertised on the jewel case and in the booklet, Gary Cooper plays not on a modern piano but on a fortepiano. This is an unfortunate slip since some listeners may expect and wish to hear this music played on a modern concert grand. In fact, Mr Cooper plays on a copy of an 1823 Brodmann instrument. This we learn from the detailed and very interesting booklet note by Peter Harvey himself.

I've long admired Peter Harvey, especially as one of the key soloists in the Monteverdi Choir's Bach Cantata Pilgrimage. Up to now I've associated him particularly with music of the Baroque period but it seems he's now singing more of the Song repertory. On the evidence of this disc that's greatly to be welcomed.

Before discussing the singing I'd like to comment on the use of a fortepiano. I should say straightaway that Gary Cooper's playing seems to me to be both admirable and perceptive. I'm much more accustomed to hearing Winterreise on a modern concert grand but I've tried to listen to this performance with an open mind. My feeling is that the use of the fortepiano produces gains and losses. On the plus side there's definitely a good clarity to the keyboard part - though Linn's superb recording probably plays some part in this also. In some songs the period instrument is a decided asset. In ‘Die Wetterfahne', for instance, the instrument's tone is highly suggestive of the wind blowing through the weathercock - and through everything else in its path - and this contributes to a really turbulent rendition of the song. Then in ‘Auf dem Flusse' not only is the rather spooky tone of the fortepiano very atmospheric but also its softer tone, as compared with a piano, allows Peter Harvey to be, perhaps, more daring in his vocalisation in the first two stanzas and the last one than a fuller tone of a piano might let him be. The spooky instrumental tone is again a feature of ‘Die Krähe' and though I thought I'd miss the tonal weight of a piano in ‘Das Wirthaus' this proves not to be the case. And, to conclude the "case for the defence", the fortepiano is very effective in suggesting a hurdy-gurdy in ‘Der Leiermann'.

But there are times at which I couldn't help but miss the greater tonal resources of a modern piano. It's true that the fortepiano helps to deliver the Mozartian lilt and grace in parts of ‘Frühlingstraum'. However, this was one of a few songs where I felt the instrument rather tinkles in its higher register. The sustaining depth of a modern piano is not quite there in ‘Die Nebensonnen' and I wasn't completely convinced by the sound in the more turbulent passages of ‘Der Lindenbaum'; in those sections there was more than a suggestion of ‘twang'. I detected ‘twang' also in ‘Irrlicht' and in this song something else is missing. In a recent review of a performance of Winterreise at the Salzburg Festival, Mark Berry pointed out the pre-echoes of late Liszt in Schubert's harmonies in ‘Irrlicht'. That, I think, is a perceptive comment but I don't think you'd make the connection when listening to this present account.

On balance I'm inclined to think that the use of a fortepiano in this performance is stimulating and in no way detracts from the performance overall but it's right to lay out what strike me as the pros and cons.

No need for pros and cons when discussing Peter Harvey's singing. In a word it's magnificent. I can't readily recall a performance in which dynamic contrast has been deployed so expertly and to such telling effect. My listening notes are full of references to Harvey's use of varied dynamics and I find his approach in this connection to be wholly convincing. Another thing that should be recorded is the clarity of his diction and what, to my ears at least, sounds like flawless enunciation of the German text. Perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised at this since Harvey read French and German at university. His command of German extends to providing the English translations in the booklet.

But it's the intelligence of his response to these songs and his masterly singing of them that command the greatest respect. Right from the start, in ‘Gute Nacht', the sheer quality and expressive variety of his singing command attention. In ‘Erstarrung' he evinces a manly desperation. I did wonder fleetingly, during this song, if his voice is too mature to suggest a naïve youth but this is all of a piece with what is often a dramatic and highly charged reading.

There's strong, warm tone and excellent legato to savour in ‘Der Lindenbaum'. I love the control that Harvey brings to the soft lines in ‘Wasserflut'. Everything is evenly produced, right up into the higher regions of his voice. Moving further into the cycle, there's an excellent account of ‘Die Krähe' and I especially relished the expressiveness that Harvey brings to the second stanza; here, as in many other parts of the cycle, he really makes something of the words. His splendid, sustained lines in ‘Der Wegweiser' are admirable as is his hypnotically controlled delivery of ‘Das Wirthaus' - the last stanza of this song is searingly powerful. The end of the cycle is mesmerising. Harvey is magnificent in ‘Die Nebensonnen' and then manages to be wonderfully expressive in ‘Der Leiermann' while at the same time offering controlled, tonally withdrawn singing.

The sound quality is excellent. I listened to the conventional CD format and was struck by the immediacy and impact of the sound; I should imagine this is all the greater when one listens in SACD format

The booklet contains some first class material, not least the essay by Peter Harvey, who has also made the English translation of the song texts. However, there's one very irritating feature. The English translation follows the German text of each song, which means that, maddeningly, one finds one or more stanzas of the translation of several songs spread over onto the next page. It may sound a trivial point but it isn't: why couldn't the texts and translations have been printed side by side?

Notwithstanding that quibble and some reservations over the fortepiano, which others may not share, this is an outstanding account of Winterreise. As I said at the top of this review, I've long admired Peter Harvey but I've not heard him do anything finer than this. I hope it won't be long before he records more song recitals to follow up this very distinguished disc.

MusicWeb International
20 October 2011