Friday 11 December 2015

Through other eyes - Zender's re-imagining of Schubert's Winterreise at Spitalfields

Allan Clayton, the Aurora Orchestra and Nicholas Collon in 2013
Allan Clayton, the Aurora Orchestra and Nicholas Collon in 2013
Schubert/Zender Winterreise; Allan Clayton, Aurora Orchesta, Nicholas Collon; Spitalfields Winter Festival at St Leonard's Church
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Dec 8 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Powerful contemporary re-imagining of Winterreise

The Spitalfields Winter Festival gave us a chance to hear Hans Zender's orchestral version of Schubert's much explored and much re-worked song cycle, Winterreise, performed by tenor Allan Clayton with Nicholas Collon conducting the Aurora Orchestra at St Leonard's Church, Shoreditch on 8 December 2015.

The concert itself was prefaced by a conversation between the Aurora Orchestra's conductor Nicholas Collon and potter Edmund de Waal. They used de Waal's newly published The White Road: a pilgrimage of sorts as a hook for their discussion of obsession, aimlessness and the 'creative possibilities of getting lost' – what Walter Benjamin called Irrkunst. As far as Winterreise is concerned, the challenge for Collon, on a rare visit to the world of the song recital, is about pacing. Faced with 24 songs, some of which are very short, how to negotiate the spaces in between?

Zender's 1993 'reimagining' of Winterreise takes care of some of these sonic spaces by exploiting the physical space. His score includes stage directions for the instrumentalists to 'sleepwalk' through the audience. In this show we had them carrying lanterns and torches around the church; at one point Allan Clayton held a disco mirror ball that sent flashes around the space. In 'Die Krähe' (The Crow) the woodwinds play straight at the head of the cowering singer. Clayton himself (sleep)walks off the platform in 'Der Wegweiser' (The Signpost). We certainly had a three-dimensional performance – immersive, too, as the band walk off stage at the end and drop snowflakes from the balcony.

Musically, Zender's 24-piece orchestra took us from Schubert's Biedermeier Vienna, via Mahler's rural Austria and the Second Viennese School, Weill's Weimar Berlin, to the present day. He changes keys, timbres and tempi but Schubert's tunes are still recognisably there. The orchestra consisted of a string sextet, winds doubling harmonica, brass, harp, guitar and accordion and lots of percussion, including wind machines. Recordings of birds were played at the beginning and before 'Frühlingstraum' (Dream of Spring) to remind of the rustic setting. The Aurora Orchestra provided a range of colours and textures to reinforce the hero's torment: the strings tapping spookily col legno for what seemed an eternity at the beginning of the first song, 'Gute Nacht' (Good Night); the accordion like a fairground carousel out of control; the harsh brass sound for 'Auf dem Flusse' (On the Stream); the chaos of 'Die Post' (The Post); the rain sticks for 'Der stürmische Morgen' (Stormy Morning) and the strident piccolo chopping up the beginning of the final song 'Der Leierman' (the Hurdy-Gurdy Man).

Zender left Schubert's vocal line largely unchanged, and tenor Allan Clayton demonstrated a total control and huge expressive range. He looked the part, hair and (Hoxton-style) beard looking neglected, unforgiving lighting hollowing out his eyes to add to his bewildered and haunted state; he can go for an eternity without blinking. He makes a huge and heroic sound when needed but sings mesmerisingly still and pianissimo without sacrificing anything. 'Der Lindenbaum' was chilling as the branches of the tree invited him, Erlkönig-like, 'Komm her zu mir, Geselle / Hier find'st du deine Ruh' (Come to me, my friend / You will find peace with me). 'Irrlicht' had a white, other-worldly sound; 'Frühlingstraum' tender and lyrical but not for long; the epic 'Das Wirtshaus' sung from the balcony, and in 'Gute Nacht' and 'Die Post' delivering lines through a megaphone.

As we heard before the concert: 'If you love something enough you have to try and look at it in another way'. Here we were looking at Winterreise through Hans Zender's eyes. But Allan Clayton constantly reminded us that this was Wilhelm Müller and Schubert speaking to us. I look forward to hearing him doing it 'straight' with no props and just a piano, and I do hope Tuesday's audience will follow Clayton to the Wigmore Hall.
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford

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