Winterreise

Schubert Winterreise song cycle. Performed 2012 in studio with tenor Christoph Prégardien and Michael Gees on piano. Recorded with multiple high-definition cameras; sound was recorded using 192kHz24 bit sound sampling. This is the most sophisticated sound technology used so far in any Blu-ray video recording. (We have a few titles with sound recorded at 96kHz24 bit.) The 71 minutes of music has subtitles in German only. There is a nice 21-minute behind-the-scenes documentary with subtitles in English, German, and French.  Released 2013, disc has 5.1 PCM output. In addition, the Blu-ray package has a bonus CD with the music recorded at 44kHz16 bit. Grade: A+

During the last 6 years, the Blu-ray titles we have been getting have generally had far better video and sound than what was possible with  DVD technology. Still, I have too frequently been dismayed when sound and video quality of our Blu-rays fell short of what current technology allows, especially in the field of classical music. Almost all of the limited top-notch classical music stuff (with 96kHz24bit sound and up-to-date video content) has been published in Japan by NHK for the home market or in the form of mostly demo recordings by AIX. But now, we have our first recording issued by a western company that exploits the state-of-the-art in both video and sound in a recording of major artists performing a substantial program of classical music of broad appeal to consumers! How did this finally come about? Obviously, recording two musicians in studio is a project that can be controlled carefully and handled with a relatively modest investment. Still, although I'm guessing, I think Prégardien gets the credit for insisting on making a recording as good as it can be!  Let's hope other artists and conductors will follow suit and demand that their producers present them using the latest gear and techniques.

Now on to the performance. Of course, the singer is normally the dominant performer in a song recital because he has the words that tell the story. Prégardien chose to sing in studio using the cameras as audience. Like the Leierman whom we meet in the music, he will tell his story no matter what (images in black/white are from the bonus extra and the color pictures are from the performance). So I will not complain of the lack of a live audience.  Prégardien doesn't need sheet music. Every word and note is burned into his soul:

Here's the studio and Gees, the accompanist:

Winterreise (Winter Wandering) is one mournful song that Schubert repeats, with substantial variations, 24 times over more than an hour.  Each variation has its own name and is considered a separate song. Each song tells a different part of a story with text taken from 24 individual poems written by Wilhelm Müller (1794-1827) as a poem cycle. The tenor singing line can get monotonous, especially if you don't know enough German to follow the words. But Schubert wrote completely different piano music for each song. The accompanist on the piano plays a key role in contributing to the distinct character of each song. Here we see Gees with his sheet music, but he doesn't look at it much. With this life-preserver at hand, Gees concentrates on what he likes to do: to play the notes Schubert wrote in whatever manner strikes Gees' fancy at the moment:

And as Gees plays, according to recording producer Bert von der Wolf:

So in the Prégardien/Gees partnership, each can take the lead and neither dominates. The result is that no two performances of Winterreise by Prégardien and Gees will be the same.  The words and notes will all be there, but the interpretations will be different.

Now (below) I'll show a few shots of Prégardien telling the story. Our young man of the song cycle must start on his winter wandering because his sweetheart has dumped him to marry a rich man. Love is a wanderer, and so must our hero also be, because God has made things that way:

Our hero leaves a note for his darling so she will know that on parting "I thought of you."

In Germany in winter, the nights last 16 hours. All is covered with snow and ice. Everything is cold except our hero's heart, which is glowing red hot:

When it doesn't seem to be dead:

Faithful to his darling, our hero wishes to die:

He sings, "I'll be better off in the dark":

Because Prégardien knows the material so well, nothing can fluster him. More comments about Prégardien from Van der Wolf:

The process of improvisation by both the singer and pianist keeps the performance interesting. According to Gees, neither partner has his own way:

So what's Winterreise all about? To Schubert, who knew he would soon die from syphilis, the wandering does lead to the grave. So traditionally, this work is sung as an orgy of self-pity. But that's too shallow a view. To Gees, the meaning of the work:

And Prégardien has a yet more optimistic view. This comes partly from our hero's encounter in the last song with the Leierman. Even this organ grinder, perhaps the most insignificant and pathetic figure ever created in verse or song, is indomitable in his heart. From this realization, our hero is inspired to try a fresh start. (And spring can't be too far away):

In the field of classical music, this recording is small scale and unpretentious. It's also impeccable and precious. In the past, I tried without success to even get through the Winterreise on LPs; this is the first recording of WR that I've been able to enjoy. So my enthusiasm for the recording is unbounded as far as newcomers to Schubert songs would be concerned. And I think that even "lieder lovers" and experts on the classical era will find a place for this along with the old recordings they love so much.

This Winterreise is, from the elitist point of view of this website, the best classical music recording ever produced outside of Japan. All you folks at Decca, DG, Sony, C Major, EuroArts, Accentus and the like---watch out. There may be more challenging video records coming soon to disrupt your markets!  Grade: "A+"