A wild Winterreise

  • Themes: Culture

Hans Zender's reimagining of Schubert's masterpiece captures the song cycle's latent modernism.

Allan Clayton in Schubert's Winterreise.
Allan Clayton in Schubert's Winterreise. Credit: Julian Guidera

Franz Schubert’s Winterreise, whose proofs Schubert was correcting on his deathbed in 1828, is one of the jewels of the European art-song tradition. Most audiences will know it from the recital hall – tenor or baritone (or, in rarer but exquisite cases, mezzo-soprano) poised by a grand piano in black tie. Like many masterpieces it has prompted reinventions. In 2020, Ensemble Resonanz and German actor Charly Hübner created mercy seat – winterreise, a musical seance that summons Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads  and Schubert’s story of lost love to partner them up. In 2019 Le Chimera Project arranged the cycle for Klezmer band; Katie Mitchell also created a dramatisation of the work for the Aldeburgh Festival with Mark Padmore. Not a dinner jacket in sight.

Its most successful reimagining is probably by Hans Zender, who arranged the songs for tenor and chamber orchestra in 1993. Last mounted in London by Netia Jones and tenor Ian Bostridge at the Barbican in 2016, it recently toured the UK and Europe in a new staging created for Allan Clayton and Aurora Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Collon. The production, devised by Jane Mitchell (Aurora’s Creative Director and behind their imaginative realisations of works, such as Symphonie fantastique and The Rite of Spring  for the BBC Proms) with Clayton credited as co-director, made ample use of the orchestra’s freewheeling approach and a battery of stage effects for two performances at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Schubert’s first performance of Winterreise for friends in his Viennese apartment left them rather shaken. On paper it is a familiar enough tale of spurned love and the ensuing despair across 24 songs. More deeply it is a portrait of psychic catastrophe. Wilhelm Müller’s poetry traces hallucinatory patterns across 24 songs – a will-o-the-wisp flickers unsteadily in the tricksy rhythmic tread of ‘Irrlicht’; a queasy waltz, like a bad dream, fleetingly breaks through in ‘Täuschung’ (‘Delusion’); penultimate number ‘Nebensonnen’ draws the curtain with an almost psychotic collapse in which the wanderer hallucinates three suns in the sky.

Schubert suggestively dropped the definite article from Müller’s collection, rendering it simply as ‘Winter Journey’ – an eternal, purgatorial trial. There is a concomitant sense of civilisational desolation. Except for the etiolated hurdy-gurdy man in the final number, the protagonist meets no human beings at all. His companions include a circling crow, with whom he forms a grim bond, and a cemetery whose inhabitants he blackly recasts as guests at an inn where he’d like a bed for the night. Otherwise there are only traces of life departed: footprints in the snow, a name carved into a Linden tree, and an empty charcoal-burner’s hut.

To call it a song ‘cycle’ is especially apt. In the final song the protagonist meets a street musician on a frozen lake at the edge of a village. ‘Will you play your hurdy-gurdy to my songs?’, he asks. As Ian Bostridge noted in his book on Winterreise, the answer dangles unresolved – but if ‘yes’, then the whole work begins again, turning over itself in perpetuity. Unsurprisingly, Samuel Beckett was a great admirer of the piece, alluding to it in his final play What Where.

It is these aspects of the work that Zender’s ‘composed interpretation’ of the piece underline, exaggerating its haunted, modernist qualities. Scored for single strings and brass, pairs of woodwinds, and percussion, its balance recalls the ensemble works pioneered by the Second Viennese School, such as Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony, as well as their Klangfarbenmelodie – a melodic line is shaded and illuminated by being continually passed from instrument to instrument, creating an eerily-shifting and unstable textural landscape. The haunted sound world of Mahler looms too, with Zender recasting the opening of ‘Das Wirtshaus’ as a funereal wind band. Zender’s version germinates the modernist seeds buried beneath the Schubert’s blasted landscape.

These small forces are also complemented by accordion and guitar, which gives the impression of a Kurt Weill-esque Weimar-era cabaret, which intensifies the feeling of the piece teetering on the brink of disaster. While the songs in Winterreise  have a much more symphonic, organic shape than the simple strophic numbers from his earlier work, they still draw on the familiar strains of folk music, waltz, and ballad. The staging picked up this cue: in ‘Die Post’ Clayton slung a guitar over his shoulder and hammed it up as Elvis or Johnny Cash – a surprising moment of levity. He released a bunch of schmaltzy red balloons – a sweet nod to the supposed sentimentality of Schubert’s music, I thought – which, more poignantly, became the phantom suns of the penultimate song, floating away into the flies.

Zender also splices the Lieder  tradition with the experimental vocal writing of Viennese modernism – think Pierrot Lunaire or Alban Berg’s Wozzeck in their use of so-called sprechgesang (half-singing half-speaking at pitch). At times, Clayton howled down an improvised megaphone, whispered, snarled, and rasped his way through the poems. Viennese expressionism is superimposed on Schubert’s Classical sensibility: Zender adds in unexpected, violent accents, uneven metrical patterns that wrongfoot both protagonist and audience, and distortions in pace like a record being slowed down.

Elsewhere there is an experimental approach to painting Schubert’s pictures on a larger canvas. The opening trudge of the first song, ‘Gute Nacht’, rustles falteringly into life with a whisper of snare drum and strings tapped with the wood of the bow. A wind machine underlines the rather Gothic accompanying figures in ‘Die Wetterfahne’; Mitchell’s staging embroiders it further with swinging, flickering lighting.

Clayton is an apt guide through this musical and psychological terrain. He has been celebrated for creating the title role in Brett Dean’s Hamlet  for Glyndebourne, as well as performing HK Gruber’s zany music-theatre work Frankenstein!  at the Royal Opera House. A recent (acclaimed) Peter Grimes  at Covent Garden cemented his reputation as an intense stage presence, fusing psychological vulnerability with immense vocal sensitivity. Nor is it his first Winterreise: in 2022 he toured a semi-staging of the piece that featured the unearthly Australian landscapes of Fred Williams.

The voice is a phenomenon and inevitably steals the show. Clayton can pivot on a sixpence from raw power to naked tenderness, with precision-guided diction. It is his quiet singing, combined with a remarkable theatrical intensity, that is most remarkable. In ‘Einsamkeit’, the final song of part one, Clayton traced his way through the auditorium, singing with startling focus and intimacy, suddenly turning a raw top note into an ethereal wisp of head voice. Nothing is lost even when Clayton is lying down or crawling on the floor. This vocal nimbleness unlocks the sheer expressive range of Schubert’s miraculous three-minute songs, one moment wounded and gravelly, the next strident fury, as in ‘Wasserflut’.

It’s hard for any staging to compete with the drama of the text when delivered through such an absorbing instrument – making the grainy film footage in ‘Der Lindenbaum’ or the snowfall that finally engulfs him, felt rather like gilding the lily. There were a couple of other fumbles. In ‘Die Krähe’ the musicians crowd Clayton wearing animal masks. There’s only one crow in the song – even if they are creatures that flock by nature – but for good reason, as it seems to serve as an alter ego or dark mirror for the protagonist, and there the direction clouded one of the sparest songs in the set.

Mostly, though, the mobile musicians of Aurora – these are the dividends of performing concert works from memory – underlined the isolation that grows as the journey winds on, moving to the sides of the stage for its final sequences. The staging, which sees Clayton begin on a raised platform upstage, makes use of a myriad of platforms and positions, which visualises the various episodes of the bleak journey outlined in the poems.

Not everything Zender does works. ‘Der Leiermann’ is given a lengthy playout that completely robs the searching, agonised final phrase of its lingering impact. In the original the piano subsides after a mere three bars, the line hanging ambiguously in the air – ‘Willst zu meinen Liedern Deine Leier dreh’n?’ But what Aurora and Clayton have created is, on the whole, a compelling magnification of work best-known on an intimate scale, and works well to unleash its latent expressionistic wildness.


Benjamin Poore