Shying away from Schubert: a Wigmore Hall Winter Journey

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Schubert: Winterreise (in English)

Roderick Williams, Christopher Glynn; Wigmore Hall, 6th November 2016

Confession: I’ve always found recitals of German Lieder difficult. It must be language related – bitter memories of spectacularly failing German O Level with its awkward sentence construction where you have to hang on until the end for the vital verb, words packed with more consonants than seems feasible, three genders to juggle… It’s probably the same reason I don’t especially take to German opera. I made a bit of an effort in the summer to get to grips with Wagner (The Ring, Meistersinger, Tannhäuser, Tristan), but I still shy away from Schubert, shun Schumann and bypass Brahms.

Roderick Williams © Benjamin Ealovega

Roderick Williams
© Benjamin Ealovega

But Wigmore Hall is running a series of the three great Schubert song cycles presented in English, in new translations by Jeremy Sams. Could hearing Winterreise in the vernacular help me find a way into Schubert’s world of song? Roderick Williams is in the middle of his own Schubert project and has blogged his thoughts on approaching each of cycles. Before the start of his performance this afternoon, he laid down a friendly challenge to the audience. We’re so used to following recital texts in programmes, or following words projected onto a screen that, in a sense, there is a disconnect between singer and audience. The baritone threw down the gauntlet that we may like to put the texts aside and follow the cycle from the performance alone – just as Schubert’s first audiences would have done. From the flap and rustle of programme pages during the performance, not many among the Wigmore audience (in particularly bronchial form) seemed to have accepted the challenge, but I decided to give it a go.

It worked in the most profound way, partly due to Williams’ superb diction, partly due to Sam’s sympathetic translation. Purists might question how free Sams has been, but not knowing the original German texts meant I was completely untroubled by this. Without the safety net of the texts, I had to hang on to every word as it was sung. The morbid despair of Schubert’s traveller hit home as he dwelt on lost love and betrayal, seeking to avoid all human contact until he meets the hurdy-gurdy man shivering in the snow. The pent-up anger that his frozen tears should “boil and burn and glow” was overwhelming, and I was touched by the image of the traveller scratching his lover’s “faithless name” on the river’s icy surface. The gloom is unremitting – even when he dreams of the flowers in springtime, he is jolted awake by the cock crowing, unable to dream of his lover’s face.

It’s easy to take Williams’ excellent singing for granted. His light-oak baritone was in fine fettle and he communicated every word keenly, without scores, but with song texts as a (rarely referred to) aide-memoire. Christopher Glynn’s playing also helped bring the cycle to life. Without knowing the song titles beforehand, I tried to guess the subject matter during a few of the introductions; the steady drip, drip of “On the river”, the post-horn’s fanfare and drone of the hurdy-gurdy man being the most recognisable. There were several ‘heart in mouth’ moments and the final song found me dewy-eyed, testament to the power of hearing these songs communicating to me directly in my own language. Where next? This recital has certainly given me the kick up the backside I need to listen to the cycle in German, with texts and translations, of course. Let’s see how much I’m moved. I’ll certainly approach it with greater understanding.

Follow Roderick Williams’ Schubert Project here.

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