I didn’t hear Schubert’s Winterreise cycle until I was in college. A friend had introduced me to the work of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the German baritone whose recordings of German lied were utterly transcendent, and his recordings of “Winterreise” remain a gold standard, at least for me. (If you haven’t heard anything by Fischer-Dieskau, it’s absolutely worth your time to check out his Schubert recordings with pianists Gerald Moore and Jorg Demus.) In his singing (and that of others, notably tenor Ian Bostridge), the pathos and utter despair of the work come to light.
(For those who would like to learn more about Schubert’s “Winterreise,” here is the Wikipedia article for you.)
So it’s within this context that I began listening to the new recording of the cycle by bass-baritone Philippe Sly and Le Chimera Project. Being well accustomed to the traditional setting of the songs (with piano accompaniment), the opening bars of the first track, “Gute Nacht,” definitely were a shock to my system – at first an uncomfortable one, but healthy even so – with instrumentation for the work from hurdy-gurdy, accordion, trombone, clarinet, violin, and piano. This, friends, is not your father’s “Winterreise.”
The choice to depart from tradition is a deliberate one on the part of the musicians. According to the liner notes, “It seemed worthwhile to find a way of divorcing ourselves from the media/scholarly tradition and return to the music itself to see what it inspired in us.” The group has chosen to create a Klezmer/Roma version of the work (and it’s labeled thus on Analekta’s website), and the change is absolutely enough to force the listener to hear it with new ears.
What does it sound like? When Martin and I were listening to this in the car on one of our trips northward, I said, “It’s as if Ben Caplan decided to record ‘Winterreise’ – this would probably be the result.” That’s the closest analogue I can provide for readers here (who are far more likely to know Ben Caplan’s terrific work – but if you don’t, you should). If you’ve never before heard “Winterreise,” this will be a great introduction for you… just be aware that if you explore other recordings, you’re in for a shock.
I applaud the musicians’ bold decision to revisit such a typically canonical work with such a fresh approach. I have to admit that my traditionalist ears needed several plays of the album to begin to appreciate it more deeply on its own, without comparing it to the interpretations with which I’m more familiar. One small criticism I would offer is that the relative lightness of the Klezmer/Roma approach strips away some of the pain and darkness that make “Winterreise” the compelling art that it is, but it’s still an enjoyable album – and if new and bold recordings of familiar works bring more people into classical music, then so much the better.