"To open oneself up to psychological states"
Thomas Quasthoff sings "Winterreise"
There are works of art with which one is never finished, either as a performer or as a listener. Among these works are not only Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Goethe's Faust and Wagner's Ring but also Schubert's Winterreise. A performance of Winterreise lasts around seventy minutes, but it can take an entire lifetime for a singer to come to terms with the work. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau spent more than fifty years exploring the cycle and, as his recordings reveal, the results differ markedly at different stages in his artistic development.
For Thomas Quasthoff, too, Winterreise is likely to be a lifelong challenge, and at some point we shall no doubt be able to compare his performances from the early, middle and later years of his professional career. He is one of those singers who with advancing age and increasing experience strike out in new directions, ever conscious of the fact that they will never reach their journey's end. The journey itself is the goal, which is why Quasthoff would never for a moment consider deciding on each step in advance: "I've heard performances of Winterreise, even by big-name singers, in which every note and every phrase was planned out right down to the very last detail - and every evening it sounded exactly the same. For me, this spells the end of music. Anyone who wants to reach his audience must allow himself to be inspired by the impulse of the moment."
When Quasthoff and Daniel Barenboim performed Winterreise in the Berlin Philharmonie on 22 March 2005, only a few days before Good Friday, the audience seemed to be indisposed, at least at the beginning, a circumstance that is fortunately not apparent from the present DVD. "Winterreise in a storm of coughing," Klaus Geitel began his review in the Berliner Morgenpost. "The storm blew and wheezed from the rows of the Philharmonie into the faces of Thomas Quasthoff and Daniel Barenboim as they performed Schubert's Winterreise at their festival concert... Only slowly did the audience gain control of itself and begin to listen in a concentrated manner. And so, against all expectation, the result proved to be a deeply moving and masterly evening of lieder interpretation. Quasthoff and Barenboim explored each song both sensitively and thoroughly."
To that extent, the present live recording may be regarded as a testimonial to the power of communication, not only in terms of the partnership between Quasthoff and Barenboim but also with regard to the artists' ability to communicate with their audience. Anyone who succeeds in turning a stressed-out and bronchitic metropolitan audience into a raptly attentive commonality of listeners must have something important to communicate. This is not something that can be done simply with a good vocal technique and a beguiling beauty of tone. According to Thomas Quasthoff, there are two things that make a good lieder singer: the ability to use the voice's whole colour spectrum and the art of being able to articulate a sentence or a word in a hundred different ways. In order to gain a complete grasp of the specific qualities of a song, Quasthoff advises his pupils to speak the text before they sing it: "This is a very elementary step, as things become clear to you that you may not notice when you sing the text. Before I became a singer, I was a newsreader, and this idea of reading something aloud to yourself is very useful for my work as a singer. The bulk of a piece becomes clear to you if you read it aloud. And then comes the second step, which is to see how the composer has set the words to music. Is it a one-to-one setting, is it in some way heightened, is it ironical and alienating, or are words transferred to what could be called a meta-level?"
When asked whether Schubert's Winterreise can also be interpreted as an indictment of the reactionary politics of the age of Metternich, Quasthoff offers a guarded response: "Schubert was by no means an unpolitical person, but nor was he a great revolutionary - at least there is no evidence for this. If he felt any social and political pressure, he did not rebel against it but withdrew into himself. And wallowing in grief was certainly not unique to Schubert, it was a striking feature of the time - it was clearly an emotional age. In this respect Schubert was certainly not an outsider. And I think he would have been very surprised to find what some interpreters and musicologists have read into his song cycles; I doubt whether he invested his 'eerie songs' with ideas of this kind. What always fascinates me about Schubert is his simplicity - and in this simplicity he is inspired."
The fact that for Quasthoff the idea of "withdrawing into oneself" was more important than "rebelling against outward circumstances" is evident from his Berlin Winterreise. Klaus Geitel again: "Quasthoff knows how to produce emotional shocks by means of a mere breath. He sings purposefully and precisely with a voice that appears to fail him at moments of inner turmoil. He plunges deep into the wanderer's psychological states and gives voice to them in a quite wonderful way. He is the singer of loneliness. In this he is incomparable... Abandoned to Schubert's tragic world, Quasthoff and Barenboim walk hand in hand, knee-deep in artificial snow, undertaking this terrible winter's journey together, a journey that one can easily imagine must have alarmed Schubert's circle of friends when he first played and sang it to them."
"Plunging deep into the wanderer's psychological states" - this phrase must have struck a chord with Thomas Quasthoff. For unlike many singers, who comment on the psychological depths of Winterreise from what might be termed a Philharmonic distance, Quasthoff is not squeamish about his emotions: "You can give a credible performance of Winterreise only if you open yourself up to these psychological states. Only then will the result be something that we call 'honest' or 'true' or 'authentic'. At the same time you have to be careful, especially with a work like Winterreise, that you don't find yourself carried away and impose on the cycle a uniformly apocalyptic mood. As an interpreter, one is constantly required to find a balance between suffering, resignation and inner revolt. If this balance is wrong, the work as a whole may go completely off the rails. That is another reason why Winterreise is an endless tightrope walk."
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Franz Schubert (1797 - 1828)
Track 1 Opening Credits / Applause [0:51]
Track 2 1. Gute Nacht [6:00]
Track 3 2. Die Wetterfahne [1:53]
Track 4 3. Gefrorne Tränen [2:37]
Track 5 4. Erstarrung [2:46]
Track 6 5. Der Lindenbaum [4:57]
Track 7 6. Wasserflut [4:33]
Track 8 7. Auf dem Flusse [4:04]
Track 9 8. Rückblick [2:22]
Track 10 9. Irrlicht [2:54]
Track 11 10. Rast [3:41]
Track 12 11. Frühlingstraum [4:24]
Track 13 12. Einsamkeit [3:17]
Track 14 13. Die Post [2:35]
Track 15 14. Der greise Kopf [3:20]
Track 16 15. Die Krähe [2:22]
Track 17 16. Letzte Hoffnung [3:20]
Track 18 17. Im Dorfe [3:24]
Track 19 18. Der stürmische Morgen [1:00]
Track 20 19. Täuschung [1:20]
Track 21 20. Der Wegweiser [4:46]
Track 22 21. Das Wirtshaus [4:49]
Track 23 22. Mut [1:33]
Track 24 23. Die Nebensonnen [2:53]
Track 25 24. Der Leiermann [7:44]