Album Review: Schubert: “Winter Journey” (Winterreise)

May 23, 2018 Updated: May 23, 2018

The new release “Winter Journey” from Signum Classics follows from the performances at the Ryedale Festival and Wigmore Hall of Jeremy Sams‘s translation of Franz Schubert’s three great song cycles. Here, baritone Roderick Williams and pianist Christopher Glynn perform.

I have interviewed a number of singers, including baritone Benjamin Appl, who have talked about the challenge of getting the audience to understand what the song is about, using color and emotion, without the audience completely understanding the language in which the singer is singing.

But there are drawbacks: the sea of heads bent down reading the song texts and not watching the singer’s expressive face. Pianist Gary Matthewman has experimented, with some success, with projecting the text. We might say “lieder with surtitles” with horror, but I thought the experiment worked very well.

Pianist Christopher Glynn’s project to create new English versions of Schubert’s three major song cycles started, partly, with a recording of Irish baritone Harry Plunket Greene (a keen recitalist and son-in-law of British composer Hubert Parry) singing Schubert’s “Der Leiermann” in English. It was recorded in 1934 when Plunket Greene was 68 or 69; like many of his generation, Plunket Greene prized communication with his audience.

Sams’s translations were commissioned by Glynn and the Ryedale Festival and performed there and at London’s Wigmore Hall. I did not hear Roderick Williams and Christopher Glynn perform “Winter Journey” live, alas, but I did manage to catch John Tomlinson and Christopher Glynn performing “Swan Song” and was struck by the change in communicability that moving to English made.

The translations by Jeremy Sams have achieved a nice combination of approachability, singability, directness, and poetry. In listening to Roderick Williams performing “Winter Journey,” it is remarkable how much being able to understand every word transforms the experience. It shouldn’t really. After all, most of us know what “Winterreise” is about and what happens in each of the songs. But hearing music and words and comprehending both transforms the songs back into sung poetry.

There is the narrative detail, of course, the way the verbal and musical gestures mesh. But there is also the sense of a wider journey, the feeling that this really is an interconnected story, not just 24 episodes. And, of course, Roderick Williams is a superb storyteller.

Both Glynn and Williams give a very thoughtful, considered performance that is fluidly narrative. As you might expect, Williams is a well-balanced and well-modulated protagonist, mellifluously and thoughtfully sung. Instead of being overwrought, Williams creates the sense of an ordinary everyman laid low, with puzzlement and bleakness gradually taking over.

I cannot think of a more beautifully sung account of this cycle, but that is only part of the story because story it is. Williams uses his voice, in all its flexibility, to create a profoundly moving tale of a man’s journey. He uses a lot more voice than Plunket Green (but is significantly younger!), yet there is still a similar emphasis on the expressiveness of the text. And “The Hurdy Gurdy Man” is a wonderfully eerie and disturbing end to the powerful story of a journey.

This is an amazing disc, not the “Winterreise” to end all “Winterreises,” but an essential complement to them. I gather that Glynn and Signum have recordings of the other two cycles up their sleeve, which is good news indeed.

Robert Hugill is a composer, lecturer, journalist, and classical music blogger. He runs the classical music blog Planet Hugill, writes for Opera Today website, and Opera Today and Opera magazines. He lectures and gives pre-concert talks on opera and classical music in London. As a composer, his disc of songs “Quickening” was issued by Navona Records in 2017.  This article was reprinted with permission from Planet Hugill.