Bostridge, Zehetmair — Winterthur, 2016-12-04

2016-12-07 — Original posting

Stadthaus Winterthur, 2016-12-04

Ian Bostridge, Thomas Zehetmair / Orchester Musikkollegium Winterthur

Schubert / Zender: “Winterreise”

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Ian Bostridge (© Sim Canetty-Clarke)
Ian Bostridge (© Sim Canetty-Clarke)
Thomas Zehetmair (© Pablo Faccinetto)
Thomas Zehetmair (© Pablo Faccinetto)



The Venue

It’s over 40 years since I have last been inside the Stadthaus Winterthur. That name translates to “Winterthur city house” (or “city hall”)—in reality it is a concert hall. Its architect was Gottfried Semper (1803 – 1879), the same man who also designed the Semper Opera in Dresden, and the main building of the ETH in Zurich. It’s a classicist building (the same style as most of the city of Winterthur), with a medium-size concert hall (some 800 seats).

The Orchestra

This was a concert by the Orchester Musikkollegium Winterthur. That’s an orchestra that goes back to 1629: the Musikkollegium Winterthur is the oldest musical organization in Switzerland, and one of the oldest in Europe. The founding of the current, professional orchestra was 1875. The orchestra was then named “Stadtorchester Winterthur” (Winterthur City Orchestra). A few years ago, the institution changed its name to “Orchester Musikkollegium Winterthur“, in reference to the name of the original organization. Some 50 years ago, the orchestra was the orchestra “for hire” all over Switzerland (one of the earliest concerts that I attended as a child was Mozart’s Mass in C minor with a local choir and this orchestra, see my post “Early Encounters with Music“). Here are some of the orchestra’s conductors

The Conductor — Thomas Zehetmair

The Austrian Thomas Zehetmair (born 1961 in Salzburg) made a first career as violinist. He received his education at the Mozarteum Salzburg (both his parents were teachers at this institution). Zehetmair also is chamber musician (in 1994 he founded the Zehetmair Quartet). In parallel to these two careers, he also pursues a career as conductor, working with the Royal Northern Sinfonia (Chief Conductor 2002 – 2014), the St.Paul Chamber Orchestra (Artistic Partner, starting 2010), the Orchestre de chambre de Paris (chief conductor 2012 – 2014), and in 2016, he effectively became Principal Conductor of the Orchester Musikkollegium Winterthur.

The Soloist — Ian Bostridge

The tenor Ian Bostridge (*1964) doesn’t require any introduction. He is one of the most prominent lyrical tenors today, focusing mainly on oratorio and Lied. I have previously written about Ian Bostridge singing the Evangelist in Bach’s St.John Passion, and about the interpretation of Lieder by Schumann. For me, this was the first live encounter with this artist. I was very excited about meeting this great singer in concert! This year, Ian Bostridge is “Artist in Resonance” (not a typo!) with the Orchester Musikkollegium Winterthur.

Franz Schubert: “Die Winterreise”

The Composition

Last winter, I have attended a concert where the German tenor and composer Daniel Behle sang “Winterreise” (“Winter Journey”), op.89, D.911, by Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828). I have made some comments on the composition in that earlier pos; let me just (re-)list the 24 songs in the cycle here:

  1. Gute Nacht (Good Night)
  2. Die Wetterfahne (The Weathervane)
  3. Gefrorne Tränen (Frozen Tears)
  4. Erstarrung (Frozen Stiff)
  5. Der Lindenbaum (The Linden Tree)
  6. Wasserflut (Flood)
  7. Auf dem Flusse (On the Stream)
  8. Rückblick (Backwards Glance)
  9. Irrlicht (Will o’ the Wisp)
  10. Rast (Rest)
  11. Frühlingstraum (Dreams of Spring)
  12. Einsamkeit (Loneliness)
  13. Die Post (The Post)
  14. Der greise Kopf (The Grey Head / The Old Man’s Head)
  15. Die Krähe (The Crow)
  16. Letzte Hoffnung (Last Hope)
  17. Im Dorfe (In the Village)
  18. Der stürmische Morgen (The Stormy Morning)
  19. Täuschung (Deception / Delusion)
  20. Der Wegweiser (The Signpost)
  21. Das Wirtshaus (The Inn)
  22. Mut! (Courage)
  23. Die Nebensonnen (The Mock Suns)
  24. Der Leiermann (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man)

Daniel Behle’s (Re-)Compositorial Approach

The concert last January featured Behle’s own version, adapted for piano trio and voice. Of course, I have been familiar with Schubert’s cycle “Winterreise” for over 40 years, but this concert  provided interesting, entirely new insights into Schubert’s cycle. Behle left Schubert’s vocal line essentially unchanged, but took away parts of the piano accompaniment, transferred it onto two string instruments. In essence, Behle’s approach was to leave Schubert’s Lieder unchanged in their melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic substance, rather taking away than adding material, then to add very limited, subtle contributions by the violin and the cello for coloring, highlighting and illustration (see my earlier post for details). Overall, while not competing with “standard interpretations” (which Behle also provides), this was a really enriching, delightful experience.

Hans Zender’s Compositorial Approach

The German conductor and composer Hans (Johannes Wolfgang) Zender (born 1936 in Wiesbaden) took an entirely different approach. He calls his adaptation (which premiered 1993) a “compositorial interpretation”. Zender does away with the piano accompaniment entirely, but adds a small orchestra instead: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, horn, trumpet, trombone, timpani, percussion, harp, accordion (here: 2 melodicas), guitar, strings (just 1 per voice in this concert), wind machine(s).

I don’t want to reproduce Zender’s lengthy essay that was included in the program notes, but I merely try to extract the essential points:

  • traditional interpretations are “worn out”
  • trying to reproduce the original impression (e.g.,m using a fortepiano from the composer’s time, etc.) is pointless, as the audience is not the same, people now approach this work from an entirely different background, with a different “state of mind”,
  • therefore, one might as well try to convey the spirit of “Winterreise” using today’s means.

Textures & Concepts

As we will see, the latter (in Zender’s approach) includes a (comparatively) rich and varied instrumentation, and deviation from Schubert’s original accompaniment. The latter includes new musical material, based upon motifs, fragments or singular features from the piano accompaniment, repetitions also in the text, expansions and compression, harmonic alterations / modulations, and Zender also employs the physical space by making musicians play from the edges of the audience, even from outside of the concert hall. Lastly, the question of course is: is this still Schubert? Or even: is this still somewhere near Schubert’s intent? The term “compositorial interpretation” claims so—the question is whether this holds true in the (a) listener’s (i.e., my) perception. We’ll see.

The Performance

I. Gute Nacht — Fremd bin ich eingezogen

Hans Zender’s “interpretation” starts by sneaking in with the faintest of noises from the percussion, barely audible, but gradually marking the rhythm of “Gute Nacht” (“Fremd bin ich eingezogen“, i.e., “As a stranger I once moved in”).

Then, wind instruments from the back of the audience, later also the string instruments on the podium playing “col legno” (with the back of the bow) start with repeated fragments of the melody of that song. In the original song text, the “moving in” is a reminiscence from the past (the real content is focusing on the “Fremd zieh ich wieder aus“, i.e., “A stranger still, I’m moving out again”. Here, however, the “moving in” is illustrated by the wind players walking towards the podium while playing, then joining the orchestra. A mis-perception by Zender? Or just a mis-placed focus in favor of a fancy idea? Obviously, we can’t have the musicians moving out at the beginning of the concert!

There were some rhythmic shifts / asynchronicities in this first part, which (in parts) looked like coordination issues with the wind players walking while playing (not an easy task for an ordinary orchestra!). However (at least, without consulting the score), in parts, this also sounded like a deliberate, aleatoric element in this introduction. The string instruments then start Schubert’s original accompaniment, and the singer’s voice finally gets the listener into Schubert’s original song. The song then builds up to a dramatic climax, where not only the orchestra expands the musical language dramatically (with dissonances, noise, percussion), but also the singer expands the original scope towards Sprechgesang, spoken / recited words, even shouting. In the end, the song retracts to finer, softer moods, with harp, guitar, flutes, melodicas.

II. Die Wetterfahne

One could almost guarantee the use of the wind machines for the second song. Zender’s dramaticized interpretation was aptly suited to point out Ian Bostridge’s real strength: his dramatic side, his expressive singing. Bostridge’s voice had little problems standing against the orchestra—there were very few instances, though, where in the lower register it got covered by the orchestra; I would not blame that on the orchestra (or the conductor), rather on Zender’s disposition / instrumentation.

III. Gefror’ne Tränen

Here, Zender illustrates the frozen state with staccato in the wind section, harp, and pizzicato, giving ample focus to Bostridge’s excellent singing. I don’t want to expand on recent, awful stage incidents with this singer, where an audience member blamed him for not pronouncing proper German. Sure, one can hear from the coloring of some vowels that his mother tongue is not German. However, by all means, his diction, particularly with consonants is flawless, his words as understandable as from most other, top-of-the-line singers (even better than some!). Moreover, what is more relevant & important: his singing leaves no doubt that he has a profound intellectual and emotional understanding of the lyrics. I would again put his understanding on a par with (past & present) native German masters of his profession, including Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (1925 – 2012).

IV. Erstarrung

Here, Zender illustrates the despair, the frozen state by sound color distortions, primarily involving the wind section, down to the contrabassoon. To me, this song not expresses despair, but also loneliness, reflection, painful memories—overall, Zender’s music sounded too busy to me, sometimes to loud, ignoring the more intimate aspects. Some of the latter were there in Bostridge’s singing, but were in danger of drowning in the busy accompaniment. Or did Zender primarily want to illustrate the feeling overwhelmed by past memories and pain? I think there’s more to the poem than that.

V. Der Lindenbaum — Am Brunnen vor dem Tore

Here, I definitely think that Schubert’s piano accompaniment is far superior in illustrating the serene, longing, reflective nature of the poem. The use of the accordion (i.e., melodicas) is a little too demonstrative to illustrate remembrance, to say the least.

VI. Wasserflut

An expressive song about pain, longing, tears. “Amateurish” brass intonation / articulation, glissandi in the strings illustrate the pain and hopelessness. The voice culminates in Sprechgesang, as if tones were inadequate to express the pain.

VII. Auf dem Flusse
VIII. Rückblick

In these two songs, the original voice line is left essentially unchanged. However, in the climaxes (particularly in “Rückblick“), the busy accompaniment was in danger of covering the voice—was Zender assuming that the audience has internalized the poetic content of the original anyway?

IX. Irrlicht

Distant wind playing from outside the hall aptly illustrated the “Irrlicht” (erring light), indeed initially producing a ghastly atmosphere. Once more, I’m missing the internalized thoughts and feelings, reflective aspect—Zender seems to “externalize” all this. An interesting detail: in the second verse, “Uns’re Freuden, uns’re Wehen” was changed into “Uns’re Freuden, uns’re Leiden“, hereby destroying the rhyme scheme (the first line is “Bin gewohnt das Irregehen“). Was this because now “Wehen” in German specifically refers to labor pains?

X. Rast

This Lied occasionally created the impression of bad coordination (harp / guitar vs. wind instruments). I don’t have the score, but at least in parts, this effect appeared to be deliberate.

XI. Frühlingstraum

Almost to be expected, Zender illustrates the “spring dream” by remote playing. The string quartet creates a salon atmosphere (Zender’s own comment). In the third verse, the “Ihr lacht wohl über den Träumer, der Blumen im Winter sah?” (you must be laughing about the dreamer who saw flowers in winter?), the eery question is fittingly spoken, not sung. Harp and pizzicato accompaniment creates the idyllic atmosphere in the second half (verses 4 and 6): to me, one of the most intimate moments in this (Zender’s) interpretation.

XII. Einsamkeit
XIII. Die Post

The loneliness in the first Lied: aptly a string quartet and wood block percussion. Yet, compared to the original piano part, Zender’s accompaniment (if not “the whole thing”) felt a little too big to me. These two Lieder were sung attacca—in a way: the loneliness ended in “endless rests” with scarce wood block beats that gradually changed into the key motif in “Die Post”. The latter Lied may be seen as the dramatic climax in the cycle (so far, at least, with the emotionally richest, most dense moments), with tempo alterations and jumps indicating heart rushing. I liked this one!

XIV. Der greise Kopf

The accompaniment aptly turned this Lied into a pure caricature!

XV. Die Krähe

Bostridge’s singing was (naturally) excellent. The calls of the crow materialized into shrill, dissonant cries from the wind section—too concrete, too pithy? I prefer using my imagination with the original piano accompaniment…

XVI. Letzte Hoffnung

Another “theatrical” view. Compared to the piano accompaniment, Zender enforces “his imagination” of quivering and falling leaves onto the listener. Impressive: Bostridge’s impressive climax in the last verse!

XVII. Im Dorfe

Here, Zender seems to be in a conflict: Schubert’s friendly major tonality in the accompaniment leaves it to the listener to picture the rattling of the dog chains. This contrasts with Zender showing the latter with scratching and rattling in the percussion. Certainly interesting, I enjoyed it!

XVIII. Stürmischer Morgen

An impressive storm (obviously again with the wind machines and lots of percussion)—sadly, the singing is almost entirely drowning in all the accompaniment!

XIX. Täuschung

The “Täuschung” (illusion) appears as mirrored motives, switching between harp, guitar, and string pizzicati, with occasional flageolet and Klezmer-like moments.

XX. Der Wegweiser

Here I started wondering: is there more than sheer originality in the combined use of accordion (melodica) and brass instruments? It seems difficult to think of a suitable “orchestral translation” for this Lied!

XXI. Das Wirtshaus

Hmmm … the title of the poem creates an interesting, ironic / sarcastic contrast to the poem itself, which equates the hosthouse, the tavern to a graveyard. Zender converts Schubert’s accompaniment into a veritable funeral march, with drums and brass band. This feels (close to) a banality to me.

XXII. Mut — Fliegt der Schnee mir ins Gesicht

A snow storm with wind machines, bells, the accompaniment (and the melody line) playing with interruptions and “irregular” repetitions: too concrete to me, defeats all levels of mental abstraction built into the original poem.

XXIII. Die Nebensonnen

Once more, the accompaniment (with accordion / melodicas, harp, wind instruments and string quartet) appears mostly a distraction rather than an enrichment / enhancement. Largely it inappropriately draws the attention from Bostridge’s (presumably excellent) interpretation onto the accompaniment.

XXIV. Der Leiermann

A good imitation of the hurdy-gurdy, combined with “arbitrary” tempo alterations, simultaneous, asynchronous streams, sudden, “dissonant modulations”: extremely demanding on the singer (masterfully sung, of course). As people turn away from the central character, half the musicians in the orchestra walk away during the final minute, like a reference to the “Abschiedssinfonie” (Symphony No.45 in F♯ minor, “Farewell”) by Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809). Well-written, but way too concrete, too much Zender, not enough Schubert!


Zender’s Composited Interpretation

There are certainly interesting moments / aspects to Zender’s approach, but at the end of this long performance, the impression from the last Lieder prevailed: often too striking, concrete, pithy, leaving little (if any) room (let alone challenge) for the listener’s imagination. In many ways, Daniel Behle’s own version, adapted for piano trio and voice appears superior (or at least more interesting) to me. And of course, neither of these versions will ever come close, let alone replace Schubert’s original!

Ian Bostridge

Stating that I was utterly impressed with Ian Bostridge’s performance and interpretation (as much as Hans Zender left room for it!) sounds like a platitude in itself! I was in total awe when watching and hearing Bostridge perform for more than 1.5 hours, with only a few seconds breaks between the Lieder! He carefully managed his resources, his physical reserves (in some breaks one could see him consciously take some deep breaths), showed no signs of fatigue throughout the performance, and of course, his singing was stunning, expressive throughout, enthralling, and deeply moving (again, as much as Zender gave him a chance to convey his interpretation!

Thomas Zehetmair / Orchester Musikkollegium Winterthur

As stated, I did not listen with a score, and I have never seen Zender’s orchestral score—still, I would claim that Thomas Zehetmair and the orchestra delivered a solid, diligent performance, played well, with good intonation, and largely without coordination issues (see above). The orchestra played with well-controlled dynamics—when the accompaniment occasionally covered the singer, that’s essentially Hans Zender’s fault or intent. Despite the critical remarks above: definitely a very interesting evening!

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