Tuesday, 10 June 2014

John Tomlinson in Die Winterreise at Temple Music

Sir John Tomlinson
The distinguished bass-baritone John Tomlinson was joined by pianist Julius Drake on Monday 9 June 2014 for a performance of Schubert's song cycle Die Winterreise in Middle Temple Hall as part of the Temple Song concert series.

Though Tomlinson has long been associated with the role of Wotan in Wagner's Ring Cycle, his vocal interests are far wider than that. The role song has been increasing in his repertoire, last year he and David Owen Norris recorded their Michelangelo sonnets programme (settings by Wolf, Britten and Shostakovich) for Chandos.

Tomlinson is now 67 and though his voice preserves its power and resonance, the flexibility was not what it was. Tomlinson sang a very low version of Schubert's great song cycle, and it has to be admitted that there were moments when it seemed that his voice required a great deal of managing. But you have to set against the fact that Tomlinson seemed able to pour a life-time's experience into the cycle. This wasn't a young man's song cycle, but that of an old man as Tomlinson, Ancient Marriner-like, bearded us and told us of all his woes.

As might be expected from such a great singing actor, this was a consummate dramatic performance. This extended to the piano postludes and preludes, when the music seemed to call forth memories from the old man. And even stretched to Tomlinson's turning and adjusting his music, as the old man might shuffle papers during his narration. This wasn't an inward performance of Die Winterreise, we were not experiencing the singer going on an exploration of his psyche, instead he was narrating his strange story and remembering, though by the end it was clear that he was more than a little touched in the head.


Tomlinson's performance of the lieder was dramatic and in a sense operatic, but not too much so. There was a containedness about the performance and he only let rip with his full voice occasionally. What the performance did also have was Tomlinson's wonderful feel for words. The German text was finely projected and you felt that every syllable counted; each was inflected and coloured. Though Tomlinson might now not be able to match younger singers for sheer beauty of tone, the way he made the performance and expression of the text was masterly.

At the reception after the performance there was some discussion about Tomlinson's account of the song cycle. Though most people were full of admiration and approbation for the masterly, gut wrenching performance, at least one person dissatisfied that Tomlinson's voice was no longer able to simply perform the notes to perfection. But our conception of Schubert's Die Winterreise is very much coloured by the post-war developments in lieder singing. We might be surprised at the freedom of early 20th century and 19th century lieder performances. During Schubert's own time only he performed it, and Schubert's vocal technique was not of a trained singer, in fact his performance probably sounded more akin to that of Sting (who recorded the Hurdy Gurdy man on his album If on a Winter Night).

With the opening song of the cycle, Gute Nacht Tomlinson displayed a fine, centred tone and a surprisingly fine sense of legato. His performances throughout the cycle took advantage of his finely dark, resonant voice, and the third verse of Gute Nacht was mesmerising in its intensity. Die Wetterfahne was full of vivid anger, whilst Gefrorne Tränen was simply done, but with a bitter undertow. Erstarrung was fast and intense, but we could still hear every word. The simple melody of Der Lindenbaum was highly inflected, with individual syllables made to really count. Wasserflut was strong and heavy, building on the resonance of Tomlinson's voice. Auf dem Flusse had almost a swing to it, but full of bitter irone and bleak at the end. Rückblick was fast and brilliant, a torrent of words. Irrlicht was highly characterful, but perhaps a little too much so. This continued with Rast and though Tomlinson was truly mesmerising, I did think there was room for a little more simplicity in his approach. In Frülinghstraum each verse was different, in a lovely piece of dramatic narration, and for all its simplicity Einsamkeit was dark and intense.

Die Post showed Tomlinson working within the limits of his voice, and using them creatively. Der greise Kopf was very vivid, and perhaps a little mannered. Die Krähe was simply done, but still with a sense of the dramatic. By Letzte Hoffnung you felt that the character was starting to disintegrate, with Tomlinson using the song's disjointedness to striking effect. Im Dorfe was heavy with irony and bitterness, then the vividly vigorous Der stürmische Morgen gave way to the lighter Täuschung. For all the melodic felicity of Der Wegweiser, Tomlinson's account was bleakly dark, and in Das Wirtshaus he seemed drained of all energy. Mut! was again full of heavy irony, and the strange Die Nebensonnen intense and not a little visionary. In the final song, Der Leiermann you felt perhaps the singer was the only person who could actually see the hurdy gurdy man.

This was a mesmeric and intense performance which transcended all limitations. Tomlinson and Drake created a finely dramatic world which was complete in itself. Intensely bleak, shot through with bitterness and irony, there was no autumnal glow but sense of bitter failure. Throughout the performance Tomlinson was finely and sympathetically accompanied by Julius Drake.

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