The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Franz Schubert’s song cycle “Winterreise” is the perfect music to mark the start of winter. But do you prefer it sung by a baritone or a tenor?

December 22, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

Technically, where I live, in the American Midwest, winter began yesterday, Wednesday, Dec. 21, when the solstice occurred at 11:30 p.m.

That means that today is really the first full day of winter.

And that, in turn, means it is time for one of my ritual listening sessions.

I am almost always prefer instrumental music to vocal music.

But the coming of winter is one exception. I don’t want to hear Vivaldi’s “Winter” from “The Four Seasons” or Tchaikovsky’s “Winter Dreams” Symphony or other such fare. (Maybe you can suggest your favorite winter piece?)

The first day of winter – with its dark, short days and cold temperatures – is almost always a good time for me to listen to what I consider to be the best, most relevant and most moving song cycle ever written: “Winterreise” or “Winter Journey” by Franz Schubert (below) from 1828, the year he died at 31.

But curiously, my preference for how I like it sung has changed.

That is a good thing.

Last year was especially memorable. I heard a an outstandingly live candle-lit performance (below) of “Winterreise” on the night of the winter solstice with UW-Madison baritone Paul Rowe and UW pianist Martha Fischer. They had recorded it as a book, with a CD plus atmospheric black-and-white sepia-toned photographs by Madison artist Katrin Talbot. (It is published by the UW Press).

But overall, I have found that I have moved from preferring richer and more artistic sounding versions with deep and more resonant baritones (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Thomas Quasthoff (below), to more matter-of-fact sounding, but no less artful, versions often sung by tenors whose sound seems thin to some ears.

It is a kind of boyish voice apparently a lot of British listeners prefer.

And sure enough, over the several couple years, two recorded cycles have superceded my CDs recordings by Rowe and by Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau: tenor Ian Bostridge (below top) with pianist Leif Ove Andsnes (EMI) and tenor Mark Padmore (below bottom) with pianist Paul Lewis (Harmonia Mundi).

Both versions are terrific, but I give an edge to Bostridge.

He moves right along, and so has a shorter overall timing for the 24-song cycle (about 69 minutes versus 74 minutes). And I love his crisp and clear articulation.

True, not all the songs in the long cycle capture me equally. But when they do hook me, they hook me deeply.

Two of my favorites are the opening “Good Night” and especially the closing “The Organ Grinder” or “Hurdy-Gurdy Man” at the end. The latter is the perfect vehicle for expressing the physical winter of the land and existential winter of the soul.

There is something about the relative thinness of the tenor voice that to me expresses vulnerability and seems more personal and natural.  Add in the almost “Sprachstimme,” or speech-like quality of the singing, and it almost seems conversational. The bleakness and starkness of the music, both piano and voice, and the text a;; seem perfectly matched to their purpose. 

It is as if someone is confiding their story and sorrows to you almost confessionally, one–on-one, rather than performing for you – a goal for all singers and songs, I imagine.

But I am sure my preferences will change with my mood and with the quality of different performers. Besides, changes of interpretation can be a healthy thing. Tey help you hear the music anew.

So I find myself asking: What do you prefer for this landmark and timeless song cycle of “Winterreise” — a baritone or a tenor?

On this post I have posted samples of each from YouTube.

Compare them and let me know which ones you prefer and why.

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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