Daniel Behle, Oliver Schnyder Trio
Schubert: Winterreise, op.89, D.911
2016-09-19 — Brushed up for better readability
The core of Greifensee is a tiny, picturesque, medieval town at the Greifensee (the town is named after the lake). It’s essentially a small castle, a little harbor, one circular road, some houses in the center, one row of houses that formerly were built inside the fortification.
Over the last centuries, the community has outgrown that little, medieval core. Pretty much all of the land surrounding the lake is a nature preserve. But further away from the lake, there is now a bigger village: the population of Greifensee is now over 5000.
In the old town, a little convention hall has been built into the remains of a medieval building (the Landenberghaus); as a concert venue, the hall holds 230 people (including balcony seats). The acoustics of the venue are not that great, there are plans to renovate / rework the hall. The seats are not numbered — in this concert, my wife and I had third row balcony seats.
The German tenor and composer Daniel Behle was born 1974 in Hamburg. He started his musical education by learning music teaching, trombone, and composition. At age 22 he received his first singing education from his mother Renate Behle, a dramatic soprano. He studied with the American tenor James Wagner, then returned into his mother’s class. In 2004 he concluded his studies in composition and singing, both with top rating. He has since been pursuing a successful career as a singer, mainly in opera, but also receiving high acclaim as a Lieder singer. He now lives in Basel.
Oliver Schnyder (born 1973) is one of the key figures among the younger Swiss pianists. He is an artist with excellent technical and musical skills, with experience as soloist, as accompanist, and as chamber musician. He received his education as pianist with Emmy Henz-Diémand and Homero Francesch, and in the U.S. with Leon Fleisher. Oliver Schnyder lives near Baden. There, he is also one of the initiators and artistic director of “Piano District“. That’s an organization offering an interesting series of piano recitals in the “Druckerei Baden”, a concert venue built into a former newspaper print facility.
Oliver Schnyder also is a member of his own piano trio, the Oliver Schnyder Trio, together with Andreas Janke, violin (born 1983, first concert master of the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich), and Benjamin Nyffenegger, cello (born 1984, deputy solo cellist in the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich and also a member of the Julia Fischer Quartett). The Schnyder Trio made its first appearance in 2012; over the past years it has already recorded several highly acclaimed CDs featuring works by Franz Schubert (one of these is listed below) and Johannes Brahms.
Adding Yet Another Recording
This concert program featured the famous song (Lieder) cycle “Winterreise” (“Winter Journey”), op.89, D.911, by Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828). This song cycle is at the very core of every Lieder singer’s repertoire (mostly male voices, though), the number of CD recordings is immense, and also Daniel Behle has recorded the cycle, with Oliver Schnyder as accompanist, see the CD below. However, given that large number of existing recordings, as a singer, Behle hesitated to add yet another one — and at that point, Oliver Schnyder apparently proposed to try a version for voice and piano trio, which then inspired Daniel Behle in his capacity as a composer:
An Expanded Arrangement
Daniel Behle very much respects Schubert’s work, and he definitely did not want to disturb the character of the composition — but he started thinking about ways to expand the “Winterreise” in order to “unravel and expose many of Schubert’s secret messages” in this composition, and as he was & is already cooperating with Oliver Schnyder as accompanist, the natural solution appeared to be an expansion of the work for piano trio accompaniment. Behle leaves Schubert’s original composition largely untouched (except that occasionally, the accompaniment is transferred to the string instruments), but for the most part, he uses the two string instruments to illustrate a song’s content / thoughts / moods, to amplify the atmosphere, and to indicate hidden cross-relationships between some of the songs.
The vocal part is essentially untouched (as far as I could see). For Behle, the song cycle, the actual “story” that the cycle is telling, ends with Lied No.23, “Nebensonnen” — and in Lied No.24, “Der Leiermann“, the voice is given to the narrator, who is now talking about himself — in Daniel Behle’s words: “The hurdy-gurdy man is me, and I can’t escape the consequences of my bad decision, i.e., that I have let myself be driven out of the arms of my love; so, I’m now turning in circles, telling my story over and over again, until I have grown old myself”. See below for a few more comments.
The Songs in the Cycle
The song cycle features the following 24 Lieder:
- Gute Nacht (Good Night)
- Die Wetterfahne (The Weathervane)
- Gefrorne Tränen (Frozen Tears)
- Erstarrung (Frozen Stiff)
- Der Lindenbaum (The Linden Tree)
- Wasserflut (Flood)
- Auf dem Flusse (On the Stream)
- Rückblick (Backwards Glance)
- Irrlicht (Will o’ the Wisp)
- Rast (Rest)
- Frühlingstraum (Dreams of Spring)
- Einsamkeit (Loneliness)
- Die Post (The Post)
- Der greise Kopf (The Grey Head / The Old Man’s Head)
- Die Krähe (The Crow)
- Letzte Hoffnung (Last Hope)
- Im Dorfe (In the Village)
- Der stürmische Morgen (The Stormy Morning)
- Täuschung (Deception / Delusion)
- Der Wegweiser (The Signpost)
- Das Wirtshaus (The Inn)
- Mut! (Courage)
- Die Nebensonnen (The Mock Suns)
- Der Leiermann (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man)
Daniel Behle and the Oliver Schnyder Trio have recorded Behle’s piano trio version of the “Winterreise” on CD — and interestingly, that CD comes as a set of two, also featuring Schubert’s original version, with Oliver Schnyder as accompanist, see below. Over the past months, Daniel Behle and the Trio have been touring the German-speaking countries with this cycle, these concerts and the CD below have received several, detailed reviews — efforts that I don’t want to duplicate; therefore, the comments below are very short (certainly for my standards!) — I merely wanted to describe my (mostly general) impressions: in particular, how I reacted to Behle’s “expansions” to Schubert’s song cycle. Note that this is not a review of the CD (which I haven’t listened to yet), but strictly based on impressions from the concert performance.
Most, if not all (as Oliver Schnyder mentioned to me) listeners are skeptical about this “modification” of Schubert’s cycle: “Is this really needed or necessary?”, or simply “Why?” — and I can’t deny that I had my share of skepticism. However, the concert offered a very pleasant surprise: it works!
What did Behle Add to Schubert’s Music?
First, let me state that one should not expect full-fledged piano trio music (such as Schubert’s of Beethoven’s famous piano trio compositions) plus voice — Behle’s approach is really subtle and ingenious:
- many verses are almost unaltered, the string instruments may perform merely an illustrative introduction, select transitions, or lead-outs;
- mostly, the string instruments are just added for selected verses or passages; occasionally, the accompaniment is done by the string instruments alone, very rarely, one can hear “full trio sound”;
- a substantial part of the string parts consists of whirring, whistling flageolet or sul ponticello tones, frequent tremolo, sometimes bordering on whispering, if not “illustrative noise” (but definitely not irritating!), occasionally con sordino, and/or pizzicato playing;
- for the most part (excepting some dramatic outbreaks), the string instruments play softly, and unless the string instruments (rarely) accompany alone, the piano part is typically untouched and — along with the voice, of course) always in the center of the performance;
- an illustrative, obvious example of the string instruments pointing out “hidden cross-relations”: Behle’s cycle starts with the string instruments briefly alluding to / anticipating the sound of the hurdy-gurdy from the last song, hence adding a bracket over the entire cycle.
Naturally, as a listener, I focused on the unusual part, i.e., on the extra string instruments, thereby “forgetting” to focus on the piano accompaniment. But Oliver Schnyder did an outstanding job as accompanist (I didn’t expect anything less than that!) — he clearly led / controlled the accompanying ensemble, but kept his own part inconspicuous, unspectacular, never dominating the scene, but maintained perfect coordination with the singer, both in rhythm / tempo, as well as in emotions & expression — what better can be said about an accompanist?
And how about Daniel Behle as a singer? Previously, I haven’t heard Daniel Behle singing much, if (almost) anything. His performance here was as much of a pleasant surprise as the nature of his additions / arrangement. He has a very pleasant voice, nice timbre, natural (not excessively nervous) vibrato, the right amount of “ping” (head resonances) and projection, the ideal volume for that performance. The voice also features outstanding dynamic control, is excellent & still projecting at pp / ppp levels, and extremely variable. It reaches from a strong, lyrical timbre down to (almost) whispering and “Sprechgesang“.
Behle is always expressive, very good at interpreting the underlying poetic content — not just in”general, verse-by-verse expression”, but down to single words. That’s definitely the natural advantage of a native German over many non-native German speaking singers.
It was a very differentiated & diligent performance, a “Winterreise” of the subtle intermediate tones! In number 14, I liked Behle’s inverted mordents, and in that song his voice sometimes (remotely) reminded me of Ernst Haefliger at the height of his career.
In the whole performance, if there was one thing that may not have worked out quite as well as the rest, then it’s the first song. There, as a listener, one first needed to adapt to the sound, to the rather dull acoustics of the venue. I had the impression that it also took the artists a while to adapt to the acoustics, to “find themselves” in the musical flow, the tempo, and the like. However, in the aftermath, that “minor hiccup” was irrelevant, for sure!
Nos.21 – 23
I found No.21 and No.23 very touching, with their con sordino accompaniment (maybe almost too much sadness in No.21?). No.22 is one of the few instances where the singer partly steps back behind the string instruments: a Lied that many singers perform with almost dramatic voice and volume. To me, the climax of the cycle was in No.23, despite or because of its impressively soft last verse.
In his introduction, Behle mentioned No.24 as being “outside the actual story”. A surprising turn illustrated this: all of Schubert’s accompaniment—the hurdy-gurdy—is played by the two string instruments, while Oliver Schnyder “illustrated” the singer’s despair with an occasional, plucked, somber A in the bass of his instrument. Even more surprising: in most interpretations, the last verse (“Willst zu meinen Liedern Deine Leier dreh’n?” / “do you want to spin the hurdy-gurdy to my songs?”) is very dramatic (even the dramatic climax of the cycle) — in Behle’s interpretation, the cycle ends in silent despair: very touching, indeed!
My wife and I went home, impressed and totally carried away by this song cycle. Behle’s performance and interpretation were certainly very impressive. More than that: the performance of all artists was simply excellent. The entire concept was coherent and conclusive, made sense!
Is this needed for the discography of Schubert’s “Winterreise“? OK, maybe not—but for that, Daniel Behle and Oliver Schnyder have recorded Schubert’s original version as part of their CD set, too! Still, the cycle with trio is an enriching expansion to the reception of Schubert’s songs.
It should not be compared directly with standard interpretations. After all, it is not Schubert, but Daniel Behle’s view onto that song cycle. As such, it should be seen as a parody (in the baroque sense, of course), as a composer’s personal view onto an older composition. It’s just like many existing arrangements, such as Godowsky’s view on Chopin or Strauss’ waltzes, Rheinberger’s version of Bach’s Goldberg Variations for two pianos, and countless other examples. I would even include in this category Glenn Gould’s view on Bach and compositions from the classic area.
Behle says that with his “inner ear” he now always hears that song cycle in his own version for piano trio. As a listener, one doesn’t need to (and probably shouldn’t) go that far, but that music remains an enriching, refreshing experience—and a strong one, too!
Addendum: The CD to the Concert
As mentioned above, Daniel Behle’s recording of Franz Schubert’s “Winterreise” comes as a set of two CDs — Behle’s version with piano trio, and Schubert’s original version with Oliver Schnyder at the piano:
Daniel Behle, Oliver Schnyder Trio /
Daniel Behle, Oliver Schnyder
Sony Classical (2 CDs, stereo); ℗ / © 2014
Booklet: 60 pp. de/en/fr
—Find CD(s) on amazon.com—