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Ionarts at Large: Christine Schäfer's Winterreise

“Come, come thou bleak December wind,
And blow the dry leaves from the tree!
Flash, like a Love-thought, thro’ me, Death
And take a Life that wearies me.”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

available at Amazon
F.Schubert, Die Winterreise,
C.Schäfer / E.Schneider
Onyx 4010 (Aug. 2006)

A singer who combines the necessary virtues for George Crumb and Purcell, the interest to sing Strauss (Richard) bonbons and Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, who leaves an exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon on her own account (to move to the classical indie-label Onyx), a soprano who sings Bach Passions as naturally as Schumann Lieder, Mahler Symphonies, and Mozart Operas – and all at the very highest level – is something truly remarkable. Christine Schäfer is that soprano, and she is truly remarkable.

Her Cherubino in Harnoncourt’s Le Nozze di Figaro from the 2006 Salzburg Festival manages to out-act (and out-sing, anyway) Anna Netrebko and Dorothea Röschmann. Hers is one of the most bafflingly successful performances of that role I have seen – disturbingly true to life, whatever that life in Mozart’s operas might have been like. (The DVD was one of my favorite things [WETA link defunct] in 2007 -- Charles's review has some embedded video excerpts.)

available at Amazon Mozart, Requiem, Harnoncourt

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon Bach, St.John Passion, Rilling

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon Bach, Secular Cantatas, Rilling

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon Berg, Lulu,
A.Davis / G.Vick
Kultur DVD

UK | DE | FR
Daring and typical was her release of Die Winterreise on Onyx in 2006. I am solidly in the camp of those who prefer a bass or baritone in this song cycle over a tenor, much less a soprano. I have respect for the better recordings of Die Winterreise for female voice, but neither Lotte Lehmann’s, nor Brigitte Fassbaender’s, nor Natalie Stutzmann’s – to name only the truly successful ones – convince me, or appeal to me much.

Christine Schäfer’s perhaps least of all – the icy clarity and monochromatic delivery somewhere above these musical fields of snow and despair was listened to once and then dismissed on my part. But in a recent conversation with the owner of Vienna’s oldest record shop and youngest record label – Gramola – the issue of Die Winterreise came up and Mr. Winter not only volunteered Schäfer’s as his favorite modern recording (the appropriately gruesome, terrifically terrifying and utterly Viennese Julius Patzak being his personal favorite overall), he also gave his reasoning. Since I cannot resist any passionate, well formulated opinion - much less argument - about any music, I resolved to scratch my opinion of Schäfer’s Winterreise and re-form it upon a new hearing.

The chance presented itself soon: Concerto Winderstein organized a recital with her singing Die Winterreise at the Herkulessaal in Munich in late February, about a month after the Vocal Arts Society had presented her at the Austrian Embassy. (Charles' review here.) I attended eager to listen precisely for the appropriateness of that monochromatic approach. That bleak white that not only marks the CD cover of her recording but also her interpretation. That clarion voice that is hardly immune to warmth, but can excise every trace of it – seemingly at will.

Eric Schneider was at the piano, and in a simple dress of contrasting penitents’ black, Schäfer began “Gute Nacht” unsettlingly fast. As her voice meet with my ingrained expectations, almost every new entrance took getting used to – but Schäfer also got me used to it every time, within seconds. At the line “The Girl, she spoke of Love”, “love” was touched most tenderly first, then 'well considered' the second time around. The Moon’s shadow cast its light very “dolce”. Instead of contained (or outright) anger in: “Love does love to wander / For God has made her so – / From one person to the next / Dear Darling, well, Good Night!”, she sang it with emotional moderation, to an eerily calm ritardando. After the protagonists writes his farewell on his would-be sweetheart’s door, Schneider had the piano walk away from the song in stubborn steps through the snow.

That this was – as expected – going to be nuanced reading was noticeable right away. But the fast tempos, lack of obvious anger, and very subtle touches of crescendos, ritardandos, or an occasional fermata did not seem enough to make this as moving as I had hoped. Moments of delight did not seem to make up for a grander total, even though there were many. But for about half the recital, they struck me all as parts that were more than the sum of the whole.

But then came "Der Wegweiser"– The Signpost – and it was not just the finest "Wegweiser" I have heard, it was some of the best singing these ears have ever witnessed. Clear like a freezing cold and bright, sunny winter day’s air. Still. As if suspended. Every word, here as elsewhere, audible. It was one of those – rare – moments where going to all those concerts seemed to make sense again, a moment I felt genuinely lucky to have heard. It wasn’t just me who felt like that: No coughs after this one!

From hereon, the recital was an event of the kind that makes you actually believe in the ‘glory of the human voice’ again. "Das Wirtshaus" started gentilissimo-tenderissimo, Schäfer displaying incredulous control over her ø, π, ∆, and all shades between. A gentle increase in desperate confidence before resignation and anger set in gave the preantepenultimate song of Die Winterreise a splendid dramatic arc. "Die Nebensonnen" continued this elated, truly ethereal quality before the performance came full circle, after an hour, in "Der Leiermann", as monochromatic and bleak as the beginning.

I know lovers of this song-cycle even more rigorous in their insistence that a woman (or countertenor, I suppose) has no business whatsoever singing this most civilized way of acquiring a depression. Christine Schäfer proved beyond any and all doubt that they are wrong. That’s what they are.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear JFL,

I love your honest, passionate style of writing. It's one of the many treats on this terrific site. Keep it up.

Also I appreciate your willingness to listen again to Schäfer's interpretation of Die Winterreise. Having listened over and over to her recording recently, after hearing some fine renditions, historic and modern, by male baritones, I concur with your assessment of her fitness to perform this song cycle. How I wish I had been at the recital you reviewed.

As you correctly wrote, her Die Winterreise takes some getting used to, as does Scheider's piano playing. It's not Die Winterreise of the male baritone. Slightly reimagined and re-scored, it's a lighter rendition than the baritone delivers. Still, in the capable hands of these two artists, it's a wonderful experience and has provided this listener with many fine examples of vocal excellence.