British tenor Ian Bostridge wrote the book on Franz Schubert's sine qua non song cycle, Winterreise ("Winter Journey"). To be sure, not the only book, and not a musical analysis, but a widely-probing and revealing 500-page volume: Schubert's Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession. This concert doubled as a tour introducing his book, which Bostridge was scheduled to present to a Music Library Association meeting at Duke the following morning. His encyclopedic knowledge of Schubert's music and of Wilhelm Müller's twenty-four poems, which comprise this cycle was a not-always-silent partner with his Baldwin Auditorium performance. Together with pianist Thomas Adès' superbly-sensitive playing, Bostridge did not just sing twenty-four songs about an unknown man's journey through a winter of season and of soul – he became that troubled wanderer. His voice was in turn warm, cold, caressing, demanding, and despairing; his on-stage postures mirrored the moods of the texts.
At the fully-open 9' Steinway piano, Adès was an ideal partner, for these songs are not "melodies with keyboard accompaniment," but songs in which voice and piano are of equal importance, a unity pioneered by Schubert. The pianist's familiarity with the score, combined with his insights from approaching it as a composer himself, provided the impulse which moved from song to song throughout the cycle. Whether in the introductions and conclusions to each lied or when undergirding Bostridge's dramatic readings of the poetry, Adès was one with the singer in their duet.
From the opening line ("Fremd bin ich eingezogen, fremd zieh' ich wieder aus / I came a stranger, I depart a stranger") to the closing line ("Willst zu meinen Liedern deine Leier dreh'n?/Will you play your hurdy-gurdy to my songs?"), a musical journey of some seventy minutes, there was not a cough to be heard in the almost full-house audience except during the briefest of pauses taken between the twelfth and thirteenth songs. The listeners were spellbound, swept along in the emotional flood of a soul so depressed that he cannot find hope even when he briefly finds the courage to look for it.
While Winterreise (Müller's title was "Die Winterreise," "The Winter Journey," but Schubert omitted the article, making his subject universal) consists of twenty-four songs, what we heard was a single work, which obviates any need for a reviewer to comment on each song, even were there room enough in the medium of review. These comments may serve as examples:
Schubert's tempo instruction for "Rückblick" is Nicht zu geschwind ("Not too quick/swift/fast." The performers' tempo was clearly very fast, and yet, in the context of their intimate acquaintance with this cycle, it seemed right.
Adès drew from a wide palette of pianistic colors, none more effective than the simple melodic line of "Die Krähe" ("The Crow"), which somehow seemed both connected and separated at the same time.
Bostridge's vocal tone varied with the moods of each text. In the last stanza of "Frühlingstraum" ("Dream of Spring"), the wanderer closes his eyes and dreams of Spring and of holding his beloved in his arms – Bostridge's voice gently caressed each note. The last vocal note of the cycle, however, was neither gentle nor caressed, but suddenly without vibrato, without hope, joining the open-fifth of the piano's left-hand part in its emptiness.
There have been great performances of Winterreise, the first by Schubert himself as both singer and pianist, to a circle of his friends. In the 20th century, the voices of baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and tenor Peter Pears remain etched in memory. Having performed this work well over one hundred times, Bostridge has joined that pantheon as one of the truly superb interpreters of this musically and emotionally challenging work. Those holding tickets to his and Adès' Carnegie Hall performance on Sunday, October 23, can look forward to a landmark performance, which will remain in their memories as it will for those fortunate enough to have heard this performance on the campus of Duke University.