Saturday 25 October 2014

Die Winterreise with Simon Keenlyside and Emanuel Ax

Simon Keenlyside at the Wigmore Hall- Photo credit Simon Jay Price
Simon Keenlyside at the Wigmore Hall
- Photo credit Simon Jay Price
Schubert Die Winterreise; Simon Keenlyside, Emanuel Ax; The Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 24 2014
Star rating: 5.0

A strong musical pairing take us on a very poignant journey

We were lucky enough to attend the second of Simon Keenlyside and Emanuel Ax's performances of Schubert's song-cycle Die Winterreise, setting poems by Wilhelm Müller at the Wigmore Hall on 24 October 2014. A packed house heard this distinguished pairing take us on a very vividly characterised journey, with Keenlyside giving a highly dramatically projected, yet mesmerising performance.

All performances of Die Winterreise require the performer to go on a journey, for some this is very external and dramatic, whilst for others it is highly internalised. Keenlyside, who has performed the work in a dramatic theatrical context, gave a very externalised performance, effectively creating the character of the slightly naive young man before our eyes. But this was not to say that he neglected the songs' inner drama too, and we saw the young man go on his journey and suffer internally and externally. Keenlyside moved around the platform a great deal, and it was clear that this was carefully thought out to a dramatic purpose, not simple pacing. The result, ultimately, was not the darkest performance of the work that I have heard but it was perhaps one of the most characterful and certainly the most poignant and richly textured.

Vocally Keenlyside was in superb form, singing with a lovely firm and resonant line, combining a richness of lower register to a nice freedom in the upper. (We were not told what keys he was performing in, or what edition). Throughout he sang within the music, never distorting the line or the words for dramatic effect. He put the colours in his voice to great use, sometimes providing extreme lyric beauty but also bleached, bleak tone. He had clearly formed a strong musical partnership with Emanuel Ax who throughout provided characterful yet self-effacing accompaniment. This was a very equal partnership, and the musicality came from both, but with Ax content to allow the singer the limelight. He never pulled focus.

The cycle started gently with Gute Nacht, with a sense of dramatic narrative. Die Wetterfahne had some vivid piano complementing Keenlyside's strongly emoted performance, but combined with a sense of line and beauty of tone. In Gefrorne Tränen both performers were pointed and characterful, whilst Erstarrung was vivid and intense. Der Lindenbaum combined a sense of beauty with the underlying troubles of the young poet. Wasserflut was melancholy and thoughtful, with Auf dem Flusse steady but with a sense of restlessness. Underlying the performance now was a sense of bitterness which crept in gradually. Rückblick was lyrically expressive yet taken at quite a fast speed with some vivid piano playing. In Irrlicht Keenlyside brought out the poet's increasing anxiety and restlessness, and this still underlay the steady tread of Rast. Frühlingstraum alternated lyric beauty and vivid anger and puzzlement, in highly characteristic manner. The first half of the cycle (and the end of Schubert's original cycle before he found the second group of 12 poems), Einsamkeit was full of lyric beauty but underpinned by Ax's disturbing piano.

Die Post had crisply projected piano with Keenlyside intense. Der greise Kopf was slow but bleak and dramatic with Keenlyside singing with very strong tone. Die Krähe had a very strongly projected dramatic context, with a sense both of the poet looking at the crow and his inner naivety. Letzte Hoffnung was highly pointed and quiet, yet with outburst of anger. Im Dorfe combined inner bitterness with real story telling. Der stürmische Morgen was robustly vivid, whilst Täuschung was all simplicity, beauty and, for course, delusion. With Der Wegweiser we were increasingly aware of the poet's inner journey, but it was also very very finely sung. The quiet beauty of the piano in Das Wirtshaus combined with Keenlyside's simple but mesmerising performance. Highly communicative, he seemed to be singing directly to us. Mut! was vigorous, and then Die Nebensonnen which was intense, strongly sung and not mystical but highly personal. The final song Der Leiermann was almost number, drained of character yet mesmerising.

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