(Originally posted on The Lunecy Review, 20 November 2009.)
The high water mark of the second flowering of German Romanticism is the work of Franz Schubert, and in particular the song cycle Winterreise. Schubert’s setting of 24 poems by Wilhelm Muller tells the tragic story of a young man who travels to the human of a woman he loves, only to be rejected, and of his desolate ‘winter journey’ afterwards.
The German born but British based artist Mariele Neudecker has explored many of the themes of German Romanticism over her career, from early works reproducing the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich in three dimensions to her more recent film setting of Mahler’s kindertotenlieder. Her films comprising her Winterreise are both literal and metaphorical representations of Schubert and Muller and serve as a backdrop and complement to the performance of bass baritone Andrew Foster-Williams and pianist Christopher Gould.
As one of the audience told me afterwards, the combination of recital and film can be a mistake, one distracting from the other, but Winterreise gets it absolutely right. Foster-Williams is a great singer and he performs remarkably across a difficult, arduous work. 85 minutes with a furrowed brow almost, as he portrays the anguish and angst of Muller’s protagonist (himself an echo of Goethe’s The Sorrows Of Young Werther a generation earlier.) It should be noted that recordings of Schubert generally feature a tenor but the deeper voice has equal merits for me. Gould is a sensitive pianist, careful and responsive, coming to the fore in the Sturm und Drang mid sections, fading almost into the mist at other points. His rapport with Foster-Williams and supporting appreciation of both singer and visuals is near perfect to my ear.
As for the visuals themselves? Neudecker has consistently adopted a long view, and that is ever-present here. The films repeatedly look away from the observer (something seen in the paintings of Friedrich) placing us in the protagonist’s mind throughout. Looped film of a boat wake cutting through icy seas draw the eye both towards the departure point and, tellingly, under the ice. Snow covered streets change with the light yet remain essentially the same. Often elements of apparent interest are distant, mist-shrouded and ghostly. Each film takes an epigraph paraphrasing Muller, koan like, suggestive.
There has been much debate over the years about the ending of Winterreise. Muller depicts the appearance of a barefoot elderly hurdy-gurdy man, a scene open to multiple interpretations, and Neudecker maintains this ambiguity. I have my ideas; it is a tragic piece exploring dark emotions and the elemental sublime at the heart of Romanticism.
Winterreise was first made in 2004 and has been performed like this about 25 times since. Whether it is the art, the music or Romanticism that draws you along, the end result is a superb work worth revisiting. LICA are to be commended for bringing such world-class performers to Lancaster.