Schubert’s Winterreise, published in 1828, the year of the composer’s death at the age of 31, is often described as the greatest song-cycle ever written, and its central themes and preoccupations – love and loss, life and death – resonate through the centuries and continue to have a deeply emotional and philosophical impact today.
German composer Hans Zender’s ‘Winterreise’ is not a transcription of Schubert’s original for small orchestra. It is a “composed interpretation”, a work in its own right, which reflects and refracts the original song-cycle. Its orchestration takes the listener from Schubert’s Vienna, through Mahler and Schoenberg to the cabaret of Weimar Berlin and Kurt Weil. In this way, it challenges received notions of authenticity, historical accuracy and interpretation, and the relationship between performer, composer and audience. If anything, Zender’s Winterreise is even bleaker than Schubert’s with its strong Expressionist flavour and rich sonic associations with contemporary repertoire and instrumentation.

(photo: Hugo Glendinning)

In this production at London’s Barbican Theatre, the music and its narrative are staged by director, designer and video artist Netia Jones using striking black-and-white film, projections, haunting shadows, and chiaroscuro. The video screen is slashed into jagged shards, like a broken mirror, onto which are projected images of frost, a river, bare branches, a lonely snowy landscape through which a solitary figure, Schubert’s tragic “fremdling”, trudges.

Read my full review here 

Tenor Ian Bostridge (image credit: David Thompson)

The final Chamber Prom of this season offered a pause to savour the music of the great English Renaissance lutenist, singer and composer John Dowland, whose 450th birthday falls this year.

Dowland’s music epitomizes the spirit of melancholy, fashionable in the Elizabethan period, and his most famous work is the Lacrimae, a set of seven pavanes for viols and lute, each drawn from the song Flow, My Tears.

For this concert, acclaimed tenor Ian Bostridge was joined by accomplished lutenist Elizabeth Kenny and the renowned viol consort Fretwork. Cadogan Hall is perhaps not the best venue to enjoy the intimate simplicity of Dowland’s music, but, seated in a semicircle, the musicians created an atmosphere of concentrated closeness, which held the audience’s attention for an hour and more, and allowed the seductive melancholy of Dowland’s music to shine through.

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I’m off to my spiritual home this evening, London’s exquisite Wigmore Hall, to hear the exquisite English tenor Ian Bostridge singing songs by Britten, Tippett, Haydn and Weill, in a special concert which marks the last day of Sir John Tusa’s chairmanship of the Wigmore Hall Trust. I bought a new jumper especially for the concert: it is partly because I love having an opportunity to dress up, and I do think one should make an effort for the soloists, who have, after all, made a huge effort to come out and perform for us. Also, I am going in my new role as a reviewer for Bachtrack.com, and, daft as it may seem, being well-dressed will make me feel confident.

Meanwhile, as I prepare myself to go out, I’ve been thinking about ‘concert etiquette’. It regularly astonishes me how badly people can behave in a concert hall: talking during the performance, humming (often tunelessly), rustling programmes, trying to open blister packs of cough sweets, coughing, yawning. Added to that, there is quite often the dimwit who forgot to switch off their phone, despite the big sign on the stage and hefty reminders by the house staff. I have, twice, been ticked off for having a “very loud watch” (a Swatch, in fact), which “interrupted” the pianissimo slow movement of a Beethoven sonata. At a Chopin recital I went to five years ago, my companion sipped Pimms from a Thermos flask during a performance of the Opus 49 Fantasie. (She also asked me, in the interval, after we’d just heard the B-flat minor Sonata, “So, who wrote the original Funeral March?”, but that is another story….)

From conversations with performers, I’ve learnt that the sense of an audience which is attentive or actively engaged in what one is doing can be extremely helpful, inspirational even, in creating the right atmosphere and circumstances for a great performance. Likewise, as a member of the audience, the sense that the performer is drawing us all along in one marvellous shared musical experience is also very exciting. Mitsuko Uchida is extremely good at this, even in a venue the size of the Royal Festival Hall, while Stephen Hough’s chilly manner made the normally convivial Wigmore seem cold and unfriendly.

Another gripe of mine is about that sector of the concert-going public who seem to gain a perverse thrill from spotting mistakes or flagging up memory lapses or other errors during a performance, as if they are actively waiting for the performer to fail. Rather like hoping for a crash at the beginning of a grand prix race. Some people can’t wait to get home and check their score, or a “perfect” recording while enjoying a sense of smugness in having heard a smudged note or a smeared run in the 15th bar of the First Ballade. When I heard Simone Dinnerstein perform at WH a few year’s ago (admittedly, a rather dull and uninspiring performance generally), she had a serious memory lapse in Schubert’s 4th Impromptu of the D899 set. I know this piece extremely well and I knew exactly where the error occurred. Fortunately, she managed to maintain the right harmonic framework, but it was still a very obvious mistake. I really felt for her, and I wonder how many hours of practice she put in after the event to exorcise that particular error.

At the Wigmore, the large majority of the audience are elderly, some very elderly (read the paragraph Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach for the most perfect description of the Wigmore’s superannuated audience), and the seats are rather comfy and plushy, and it’s often too warm in the hall. Result: Beethoven’s Opus 5 to the accompaniment of snoring. For a performer, it must be rather galling to have spent all those hours preparing only to find a third of the audience asleep, ten minutes into the performance. Ditto people yawning, or talking. In reality, I suspect many performers are expert at “filtering out” such behaviour, and in bigger venues, the lighting is such that only the first few rows of the audience are actually visible.

Of course, these are all relatively minor complaints, and it is rare for such things to spoil my enjoyment of a live concert. For those who require absolute silence, 100 per cent concentration, and perfect delivery from the performer, may I suggest you stay home with the most precision-engineered recording you can find. It might be a perfect performance, but it will lack the danger, risk and excitement of live music.