Boesch and Martineau draw us magnetically into Schubert’s cold, dark night.

Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House
June 29, 2015

Hearing it all over again, is their any music drama greater, more revolutionary and more compelling than Winterreise? Schubert’s final song cycle, the music he must have sensed could be his last, is like nothing else in the history of the lied until the psychodramas of Hugo Wolf with their odour of 19th century fin de siècle. The composer knew it was original; he knew the work was “terrifying”; he feared his friends mightn’t ‘get it’; but he also believed that time would bring the world to understand and accept his icy odyssey of despair, disillusionment and introspection.

Quite what they made of it in 1827, heaven knows. What we make of it today – a work that commands our engagement through its sheer range of interpretation – is frankly up to the individual performers and the receptivity of their audience. And on the lieder scene today, there is no one equipped to do it justice like Austrain baritone Florian Boesch and pianist Malcolm Martineau. The former is a robust singer, a consummate actor and possesses a considerable intellect, worrying and mining his texts for every nugget of meaning. The latter is a musician of extraordinary imaginative powers, as well as a dream accompanist: “slick as a juggler’s mate” to catch a singer’s thought (to quote Shakespeare, or maybe more appropriately, Peter Quint).

I’ll not reiterate all that my colleague Steve Moffatt wrote in his deeply perceptive review of the previous day’s concerts – a heady Die Schöne Müllerin and a grim-faced essaying of the twin cycles that make up Schwanengesang, Schubert’s actual final utterance – but I will say this: Boesch is the most magnetic lieder singer I can recall since a transformative experience watching Philip Langridge ‘live’ The Diary of One Who Disappeared at the Edinburgh Festival back in the 1990s.

Like Langridge, Boesch comes at these poems text-first, his tone at the command of the emotion of the second. Unafraid to be gritty, he’s prepared to pare the voice back to a whisper, not always conventionally beautiful but always in the dramatic moment. He can be a seat-of-the-pants risk-taker, but he is disciplined and capable of great beauty of tone and sense of line when he chooses. Martineau too lives in the moment, poised like a hawk, eyes glued on his partner, ready to swoop or support with that turn-on-a-dime quality that comes from decades of experience partnering singers. More than that, he’s a fellow traveller, a kind of Jungian alter-ego (if I may mix psychological terms), ready to hold Boesch’s musical hand in the uncaring forest, to suffer alongside a friend, or to pull back and play out the subtext (Schubert of course provides this in spades, and Martineau elaborates it like no pianist I can recall hearing to date).

How you read Wilhelm Müller’s remarkable cycle of poems is very much up to you. What has happened to this ‘traveller’? Is the man on a physical or simply a mental journey? Has it happened before? Is it happening now? Any which way, Boesch takes up the challenge of essentially 24 micro-dramas an invests each with a myriad of emotional twists and turns. His opening Gute Nacht (Goodnight) is no bleak trudge but initially a benign remembrance of times past. However by the time of his recollection of the soft closing of the sleeping girl’s door, he’s been drained – “sacht, sacht die Türe zu” reduced to a heart-breaking whisper. The bitter anger of Die Wetterfahne reveals Boesch’s protagonist’s haunted heart, Martineau expressing the parallel turbulence of the buffeted weathervane with a rhythmic freedom that is its own music drama.

Boesch gives us the drama in real time, pushing on through Schubert’s bleak night with occasional pause for thought. Many of these songs are strophic, though you’d scare know it, so imaginatively do the artists develop the dramatic through line. It’s a bumpy ride, from the shocking fury at the end of Gefror’ne Tränen (Frozen Tears), the despair of Erstarrung (Numbness) or the lyrical side trip from consolation to resignation via delusion that comes with Der Lindenbaum (The Linden Tree).

Each of Schubert/Müller’s proto-Freudian symbols are given due emphasis – a surprisingly benign crow in Die Krähe, the dangerous temptation of the will o’ the wisp in Irrlicht, the frozen spectre of the hurdy-gurdy man in Der Leiermann. And if you want an object lesson in textual analysis, listen to how many ways one man can sing “mein herz” in Die Post (The Post).

Finally then, what happens to our traveller? I don’t think Boesch and Martineau want to provide answers as much as provoke questions. There’s a palpable sense of a man simply giving up and dying in the cold, cold snow, but there’s also a Lear-like quality – an element of “never surrender” – that comes out in Die Stürmische Morgen (The Stormy Morning). And was there a more enigmatic song ever written than Das Wirtshaus (The Inn) where the wanderer mistakes a graveyard for an inn (or does he?) What is certain is that this Winterreise is an intense passage that any audience should feel privileged to have been invited to witness, and each will take something different with them out of the concert hall on their own chilly journey home.

I recall in my review of Boesch and Martineau’s superb Winterreise recording on Onyx describing it as a reading of the work for the 21st century. Well, here we are in its second decade, and if anything these two artists have brought us even further up to date. The three concerts are touring Australia over the next few weeks and I’d urge singers, actors and musicians – indeed anyone interested in the interpretation of text through music – to catch one of these utterly memorable performances. Definitely one for the trinket box.

Florian Boesch and Malcolm Martineau sing Schubert at Adelaide’s Elder Hall, July 4 and  Melbourne Recital Centre, July 6-8