Winterreise (Wilson-Johnson, Harris)

Schubert: Winterreise, d911. David Wilson-Johnson, baritone; David Owen Harris (early piano). Hyperion



Schubert found and set the first 12 poems of Winterreise as a self-contained group. But this was published with the promise of a “second half”, because he had meanwhile found a different source, with the lyrics supplemented and re­arranged by the poet. Müller's reordering (using D911 numbers) was 1-5, 13, 6-8, 14-2I, 9-10, 23, 11-12, 22, 24. Again the new poems were set seriatim, save for the insertion of Die Nebensonnen (23) between Mut and Der Leiermann.

   If Schubert had begun with Müller's 24-poem sequence, he would no doubt have retained that order, though the music itself might then have been very different. The two-part masterpiece we have, however fortuitous its origins, was sanctioned as such by the com­poser. This record's ill-informed and slackly argued sleeve note, written jointly by the performers, announces that “we have decided to adopt the poet's order”. The change that Schubert certainly made is “of no particular importance to us”. Both interpreters believe that the rearrangement creates a new character, who is “positive, powerful and interesting”. He also bears a strange and striking resemblance to them: for they too, as it happens, can “compre­hend to the full” the view of a man who, “afraid of happiness, runs from its possibility”.

   That is why our born-again hero has decided to bid a bald “Gute Nacht”; he has personally opted, in his own posi­tive and powerful way, for a moonlight flit. In following his footsteps we are enjoined not to make the usual assumptions, that is, what everyone else has always taken the words to mean; and we are challenged to say where the first poem actually speaks of rejection by the beloved. Well, how about lines 5-8, 17-l8 or 21-24, for example? Further, lines 9-10 explicitly contradict the proposed reinterpretation; as the singer tells us in terms, he cannot choose the time of his departure.

   There is worse to come. The artists worked from a facsimile manuscript, but without realizing its subordinate status. Unfortunately for their theory, the first-edition readings they reject are all Schubert’s: he is the “sloppy proof-reader” of whom they complain. In all good faith, they sing and play his first drafts. This is already distressingly obvious by the second song, at the relevant words “should have noticed it earlier”. It applies mainly to Part I; but an express preference for wrong notes makes a poor policy passim.  

   There are occasional compensations. The astringency of the 1824 Broadwood square piano obviates sentimentality, and makes for an unusually convincing hurdy-gurdy. The straightforward singing suits the proposed new char­acter, with an inexpressive quality also especially apt in Der Leiermann. Both performers can convey moments of real insight, with admirable artistry. But I feel that their interpretation of the music is in general only too consistent with their Interpretation of the next and the facts.


© Early Music, Nov. 1984 (p. 573)