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Like a train, puffing slowly away along a barren horizon. A moving dark line between a ice-covered earth and a grey-clouded sky.

Or the crunching of frozen snow under foot as a body drags itself mechanically along.

Motion. Journey. Solitude. Bleakness.

So begins Hans Zender’s Winterreise, an composed interpretation for tenor and small orchestra written in 1993, some 165 years after Schubert’s masterful original song cycle. Since its composition, Zender’s Winterreise has itself become an established piece of contemporary classical music. The interpretation leaves the vocal line untouched while breaking apart the piano line in the orchestral parts. It is as if Zender were examining a crystal under a microscope and expressing the repeating geometric structure observed at a larger-than-life level. Though some have criticised the music for being too obvious, Zender’s ability to take a piece of the classical canon and make it a new experience without straying from the musical essentials and intent is to be admired.

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Netia Jones’ Weimar-influenced conception of Zender’s Winterreise at the Barbican Photo Credit: Hugo Glenndinning

Last week, the Barbican presented Zender’s Winterreise in a staged version entitled The Dark Mirror. Director/designer/video artist, Netia Jones conceived the staging and created the accompanying multimedia while the musical side featured tenor and today’s foremost singer-scholar of Schubert Ian Bostridge and conductor Baldur Brönnimann presiding over the Britten Sinfonia.

Zender’s reworking is a masterful piece of orchestration, and it shone under Brönnimann’s steady and nuanced hand. The broad range of colours resulting from Zender’s careful instrumentation magnify the emotional intensity at specific moments, and Brönnimann skillfully accentuated songs’ unique moods  while maintaining the thematic integrity of the whole piece. From the fluttering flute at the opening of “Der Lindenbaum” to the courtly lover-like guitar  accompaniment in “Frühlingstraum”, the soloists painted such vivid musical scenery that visual imagery was rendered superfluous. At times, the coordination between Bostridge and the orchestra slipped a little (a nice reminder of the magic work of making live music!), requiring Brönnimann to re-align both units with one another, which he did rapidly and seamlessly. However, the ensemble and singer were perfectly fused in the hedonistic desperation of “Mut”, sending chills up my spine on the line “Sind wir selber Götter!” (we ourselves are gods!)

Bostridge once again proved himself to be the superlative Schubert interpreter of our day. His impeccable diction allowed the audience to clearly understand every word and enabled him to convey detailed artistic decisions, such as consonant exaggeration, without any sense of artificiality. He immersed himself in both Jones’ Weimar cabaret character and the lovelorn wanderer, and his lanky physique perfectly suited both portrayals. Having sung the marathon cycle the night before, I was impressed at Bostridge’s stamina; he never faltered vocally or dramatically throughout the length of the performance. A back-to-back of Winterreise is challenging enough, and the demands of staging and the vocal exposure of performing a complex solo work with a multi-piece orchestra made it all the more impressive.

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Ian Bostridge as the lovelorn wanderer in The Dark Mirror Photo credit: Hugo Glendinning

Jones’ choice to use two distinct figures in the work echoes the cycle’s two part completion. The sandwiching of the wanderer between the opening and closing cabaret presenter provided a visual structure to the plot development and suggested differences from the original setting. Like a book with chapters set at different times but always narrated in the present, The Dark Mirror expressed a cyclical tale that included flashbacks being lived out in the present whereas the original Winterreise’s narration recounts, rather than relives, past episodes. Jones’ physical staging was quite straightforward while her multimedia alternated between closeups of the cabaret/wanderer faces and more abstract winter-themed geometric videos. The faces were distracting (think 19th-century emo) and did not deepen the emotions of the work already so well conveyed through its musical elements.

 

I found The Dark Mirror to be thought-provoking and powerful due to the superb musical elements. The staging, while making it visually engrossing, did not significantly amplify the impact of the work. Still, I would be keen to see more abstract multimedia work from Jones in other song cycles or even instrumental work, as it would add a complimentary layer of interpretative complexity. Overall, the performance of The Dark Mirror was exceptional, providing a new take on both Zender’s established re-interpretation of Schubert’s masterpiece and on the 19th century classic itself. The evening was tense in the best sense, and it refreshed the original Winterreise by allowing it to be experienced in a new way.

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