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Christine Schäfer's Winterreise

available at Amazon
Schubert, Winterreise, Christine Schäfer, Eric Schneider
(released August 8, 2006)
Onyx Classics UK 4010
Should a woman even think about singing Schubert's Winterreise, a song cycle whose poems and music are almost indelibly in a man's voice? Several have attempted it, most have failed, with perhaps Brigitte Fassbaender as a worthy exception. Christine Schäfer would not leap to most minds in connection with this dark music, a voice last described here as a "boyish and dulcet" Cherubino in the Salzburg Festival's Nozze di Figaro. Schäfer's success at the venture may not come across quite so favorably on her recently released recording (you can hear the 20th song, Der Wegweiser, at the moment as the background sound at her Web site) as it did in her Vocal Arts Society recital on Wednesday night at the Austrian Embassy.

After fairly thorough listening, we have already declared at Ionarts that Winterreise is a baritone's cycle, although the composer's original choice of key was tailored to a tenor. Ian Bostridge and Leif Ove Andsnes' recording has its moments in my ears, but the usual problem with higher voices singing this cycle is that the shift of registers in many of the songs seems to fit best with the baritone, able to growl in the basement and roar or purr at the heights of the voice. With treble voices, the higher passages risk becoming too ethereal or too overbearing, depending on the interpretative choice, and the bottom gets lost (as it did at times with Schäfer, although the acoustic of the Austrian Embassy generally saved her). Still, as François Loup's version last fall showed, not all baritone performances are created equal either, so new performances by all kinds of voices are welcome. Especially if the tenor in question were Mark Padmore, as it was earlier this week at Carnegie Hall.

What makes the best performances of the cycle is that they capture the gloom of the narrator's sadness (Nun ist die Welt so trübe, he announces in the first song). Rejected in love, he leaves behind his beloved's house and village, trudging through the snow, haunted by memories that come back as snatches of major-mode melody, shunning society and hoping to find the signpost that leads him toward death. Schäfer drained her voice of most of its chaleur, not making her tone so icy as to be uninteresting or brittle but so that it glistened in an introspective way, like the whispering of the narrator through his chattering teeth.

Schäfer's recording clocked in at a brisk 68:32, and many of the tempi in this performance were faster than those one might expect, a choice announced immediately with the first of the twenty-four poems by Wilhelm Müller. The rushed tempo of Gute Nacht set the scene, giving the impression of the dejected man hurrying away with quickened steps in the freezing air. Along with the tendency toward impetus in pacing, Schäfer and her associate artist, pianist Eric Schneider (also featured on the recording), favored the soft side of their dynamic ranges, emphasizing the interior monologue of the poems, almost as if the narrator were already a ghost (a spectacular example was in the third song, Gefror'ne Tränen). This impression was reinforced by her statue-like posture, almost motionless, with her face an impenetrable mask.

Other Reviews:

Allan Kozinn, A Passionate, Yet Light Voice for Icy Songs by Schubert (New York Times, January 15)

Jay Nordlinger, A Spellbinding 'Winter Journey' (New York Sun, January 15)

Bradley Bambarger, Ice-breaker (Newark Star-Ledger, January 15)

Anne Midgette, The Art of Expression, Fully Drawn by Christine Schaefer (Washington Post, January 18)
Pianist Eric Schneider did much to help the atmospheric setting of the songs, pacing the first song with a deliberate trudge and giving a fluttering introduction to Der Lindenbaum, leading us into the memories of the tree near his beloved's home in happier spring days. The pointillistic, almost Webernesque flavor to the accompaniment of Letzte Hoffnung was effective, but the lightning-flash arpeggios of Der stürmische Morgen were a little sloppy (Gerold Huber is the unparalleled master of this song, on his recording with Christian Gerhaher, nailing every note at an exhilirating tempo). Schneider's was not a technically flawless performance -- so few ever are -- but the half-dozen most noticeable finger slips did detract slightly from this polished rendition, as did a few of Schäfer's highest notes, slightly out of her control, as in Auf dem Fluße.

In some cases, it felt that Schäfer's constrained sound limited her freedom of expression, but at moments when she let go, she took full advantage of a high voice singing Winterreise, to soar expansively as she did in the exclamations of "Mein Herz!" in Die Post. The final song, Der Leiermann, was one of the best, for the pure, high vocal line (also one of my favorite parts of the Bostridge-Andsnes recording), capturing the otherworldly quality of the scene. It was a devastating performance, shaking my conviction about the vocal qualities of this beloved song cycle and, rarest of pleasures, holding a capacity audience in spellbound silence for just over an hour.

Christine Schäfer will perform Winterreise tonight at the St. Louis Art Museum and again on February 19 in Munich, after which we hope to read Jens's review. The next recital from Vocal Arts Society will feature mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard and pianist Brian Zeger at the Austrian Embassy (March 7, 7:30 pm).


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this insightful review/account of this record - I am glad Christine Schaefer is getting some attention lately, I really enjoyed her version of Gretel in the new Met production...

Looking forward to your account of Isabel Leonard's performance, if you are going to attend it in March...

Charles T. Downey said...

Thanks for the kind words. Yes, Isabel Leonard is on the schedule. Looking forward to it.