The Guardian, Thursday 10 March 2011 17.43 EST
Nowadays every accompanist and many a solo pianist wants to perform Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise – works so iconic that, unless you have them under your belt, you are not even a player. The Müllerin, the story of a miller boy in love, disillusioned, and finally suicidal, remains the preserve of tenors and baritones, but both male and female singers are impatient to depict the unravelling sanity of the rejected and solitary winter traveller.
Things were different nearly 40 years ago when Winterreise stood on the outer fringes of the repertoire, spoken of in awe, and seldom attempted by British artists. I was in the audience on an unforgettable afternoon in June 1972 when Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten performed those 24 songs. This was some years after their recording of the work for Decca (which I did not know at the time), and as a duo they were at their interpretative height.
Pears was enjoying a vocal renaissance; a new teacher had helped him add a commanding lower register to his tenor timbre and at the top he was freer and more eloquent than ever. At 62, he employed a greater range of vocal colour than when he was a younger man.
I was a student at the Royal Academy of Music at the time, and was an avid fan of Britten’s music – it would surely be worthwhile, I thought, to hear him play anything. But I found Schubert’s piano music mystifying. With Mozart and Beethoven you knew where you were, but Schubert, neither completely classical nor openly Romantic, slithered elusively out of my grasp. My exasperated piano teacher should have pointed me in the direction of the Lieder.
From the opening notes of Gute Nacht, the audience in Snape Maltings was transported to another world. Schubert’s songs were unknown to me, but the way this music transformed Wilhelm Müller’s terse and heartbreaking poems was miraculous. The electricity generated by Pears and Britten stunned everyone there that day, but it ignited a flame in me that changed my life. I realised that accompanying songs was what I wanted to do, and working with a singer in music as great as this was clearly one of the most rewarding things in the world.
I emerged from this experience a convert but a neophyte; the first thing I needed to do was to listen to how everyone else interpreted the cycle. If I were doing this today, I would be spoiled for choice, but in the early 70s one felt lucky to have, as well as the prized Pears-Britten LP, the recordings of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Hans Hotter, both with Gerald Moore, and Gérard Souzay with Dalton Baldwin. The Gramophone Exchange in Wardour Street, London, unearthed Gerhard Hüsch, Lotte Lehmann, Elisabeth Schumann and even Elena Gerhardt, the first woman to record the cycle in 1928. These were my shellac days of bonding with the past.
The next phase was another kind of bonding – scouring the printed music, and getting it into my head and fingers. Most performers of the time owned the conveniently sized Peters edition. For £18 I found a hardback Dover reprint of the 10 volumes of songs in the Schubert Gesamtausgabe from 1895, containing 200 songs left out by Peters. Britten played from this scarce edition, but it remains inaccessible to most modern musicians.
By the late 70s, the two Müller cycles had appeared in different volumes of the bank-breaking New Schubert Edition. And then there was the fascinating facsimile of Winterreise that differed in so many details that I rashly altered my printed copy to match the composer’s autograph. Fortunately the great song scholar Eric Sams gently pointed out that Schubert himself had corrected the work in proof, and the printed edition, not the autograph, represented his final thoughts.
The preparatory work required of singers and pianists is as multilayered as winter clothing. German was not on offer during my school days in Zimbabwe and I had to set my cap at the language. My collecting began with records and scores and culminated in poetry.
When I was finally able to leaf through and read the same editions that Schubert had used for his musical settings I felt I had arrived at the heart of the music. At last I could retrace Schubert’s voracious reading, the journeys of his mind. My own journey was on two tracks: to play the music as well as to write about it. And, for the last two decades, I have been working on commentaries of the Schubert songs and their poets. This will be published next year in three volumes by Yale University Press.
My first London Winterreise was with Richard Jackson in 1980 as part of a Songmakers’ Almanac summer series; my first recording of Die Schöne Müllerin was with Martyn Hill in 1982; my most hair-raising of winter journeys was with Brigitte Fassbaender, the most personally touching those with my partner, Brandon Velarde, in Los Angeles and Cape Town (for these are works that reward celebrity and student alike, and celebrity is not the automatic winner). Between 1987 and 2003 I recorded the complete Schubert lieder for Hyperion (over 700 songs, including the vocal ensembles and fragments) on 37 CDs with more than 60 singers. In the mid-1990s Hyperion’s Die Schöne Müllerin launched the recording career of Ian Bostridge, and Winterreise that of Matthias Goerne.
Great works of this kind are self-renewing in the minds of diligent interpreters and there are always oversights and misconceptions to be rectified. Tempo and balance require constant re-examination, clearly marked phrasing should be audible, and staccato markings and accents are too often ignored. The score is always there to reproach you, the key to the musical depths that are fancifully ascribed to an artist’s own suffering.
Perhaps illness or personal crisis make you more open to what the composer, who suffered enough for all of us, actually requires. All pianists go through phases when the classical poise of Schubert predominates at the expense of romantic fluidity, and other times when the balance is off-kilter in the opposite direction, but it is the singer’s vocal personality, musical imagination and technical ability that determine the tone and convey the core message. With these kinds of variables nothing turns out as expected, including the magical surprise of new musical revelations.
I have recently recorded all three Schubert cycles with Christopher Maltman, live at Wigmore Hall, which was a very different challenge from hours in a studio. I am 20 years older than Chris, but still younger than Peter Pears when I first heard him in Winterreise. To support Chris in his prime I hope, like Pears, that I can say something at 60 that would not have occurred to me at 40. In youth is pleasure, but with age comes understanding. The thousands of past performances of these mighty works, and the thousands to come, must not deter us. We are proud to be championing Schubert at Wigmore Hall, but there is no such word as definitive, no such thing as a last word. Tomorrow we may well be in the mood for something subtly, unexpectedly, different. The journey goes on.
Volume one in the complete Schubert song cycles, Die Schöne Müllerin, by Christopher Maltman and Graham Johnson, is released on Wigmore Hall Live on 28 March.