‘Winterreising’ just with a piano accompaniment is out. Vocal travelers these days, perhaps aware of the need to stand out and offer something extra to draw audiences to a Lied recital, opt for alternatives. Günther Groissböck – on a most appropriately wintery, biting cold January night in Munich’s Prinzregententheater – certainly went all out for his Liederabend of this song-cycle of song-cycles: Franz Schubert/Wilhelm Müller’s Die Winterreise was presented in a version for chamber orchestra (not just piano trio, for example, as Daniel Behle has recently recorded; see Classical CD Of The Week: Winterreise Threesome) and, adding yet another dimension: recitalist.
Vienna-born recitalist Christine Ostermayer, a grand Dame of the German-speaking theater landscape, elegant and beautiful at 80, completed an Austrian trifecta what-with Günther Groissböck being from Lower Austria and arranger/orchestrator Alexander Krampe hailing from Styria. Alas, her texts and remote-control narration found me uninvolved and bored at first, indifferent later; poems read off the page with no sense that the words were supposed to ingratiate themselves and form larger, coherent sentences. This took an unexpected turn to the marvelous in the fifth and last segment of recitation where the preliminary text “Fates” tied in neatly with the “Eisenbahngleichnis”, Erich Kästner’s characteristically witty, amusing and laconic style of profundity in poetic form and which snapped me right out of that indifference.
It was impossible, meanwhile, to remain indifferent to Günther Groissböck’s singing. I’ve encountered Groissböck regularly over the years, as Zaretsky/Gremin in Krzysztof Warlikowski’s ‘Brokeback Mountain’ production of Eugene Onegin (ionarts: Yee-Haw Onegin), in a Bruckner Te Deum, as a rapy, Frtizl-esque Water Goblin in Martin Kušej’s Rusalka, as a mildly sadistic Herrmann in Bayreuth’s Tannhäuser etc., but never more impressively and perception-alteringly (both as regards him and the work) than in Harry Kupfer’s Rosenkavalier at the 2013 Salzburg Festival. His virile, uncouth, begrudgingly sexy Ochs elevated the rôle to a level it never attains, raising an already pretty darn good opera another notch higher by way of dramatic intensification:
“So what he had a cold and wasn’t at his most resonant. So what his very low notes aren’t [quite] Kurt Moll’s [this night]. Here was an Ochs whose seedy insinuations, predatory moves‚ and cynical worldliness come across as properly offensive, threatening, disgusting and shocking—certainly to a young girl about to be betrothed to the animal. The audience was horrified along with Sophie and Octavian, and one noticed the extent of Ochs‘ sordid behavior much more acutely than one would have done, had it simply been a latter-day Falstaff who courted Sophie, ridiculous upon first glance already and not taken seriously beyond that.”
Ironically, he again suffered – slightly – from the outliers of a cold this January evening. If that gave a slight sense of struggle to his voice, it didn’t do anything to make him less impressive: Full and round and so sonorous was his voice, that I found myself suspecting that this must necessarily come at the expense of nuance in textual and dramatic expressiveness. That might be so, though not necessarily, if one compares his performance to the platonic ideal and idealized version (i.e. Christian Gerhaher’s) in one’s head. But it’s also unfair and counterproductive to one’s enjoyment. Fortunately the experience of having the Winterreise sung at one with such an imposing and deep voice (
Alexander Krampe’s orchestration, for example. I’m a sucker for arrangements of all things and songs in particular, and I already love Hans Zender’s illustrative, often obvious, melting and reassembling modernization. Krampe gives us something very different: A fairly straight-laced arrangement for string quartet + double bass, flute, clarinet, bassoon, guitar and accordion/bayan. Especially the timbre- and color- enriching latter two instruments add neat touches such as when Alexander Kuralionok’s button accordion was masterfully employed – and played with lusty vigor – in “Erstarrung” and “Der stürmische Morgen”. The moodily plucked, amplified guitar had fewer moments to shine, but came close on occasion (such as in duet with the bayan in “Der Lindenbaum”). The orchestration offered musical analogies one doesn’t otherwise hear, such as the analogy to Mozart’s Requiem in “Auf dem Flusse” (!), or unexpected, nostalgic colors – like those of a slightly red tinted film from the late 1950s. From “Letzte Hoffnung” (with hints of Peter and the Wolf from the bassoon’s opening notes) onward, the character became ever more one of true orchestral songs or even operatic excerpts; “Mut” turned into a slow aria from an unwritten oratorio and there was a strong dose of lyrical Viennese ballroom atmosphere in “Täuschung”.
I don’t know if all those changes and additions in and of character and mood were intended from the get-go, or merely accepted; they certainly didn’t all follow the traditional mold of the Winterreise which here became a lyrical, gorgeous work rather than an increasingly pale, brittle, and gloomy one. But it certainly made for a unique, seductive experience. At its best, the orchestration was restrained and natural; never obtrusive. The generally slow tempos that the very well playing orchestra Chamber Opera Munich indulged in, the homogeneity of the scoring, the absence of pain: One could have found points of criticism easily, if one hadn’t been pleased enough with that which was new and different… and the beauty of these differences. I was, and consequently moved and entertained in equal, satisfying measure.