I doubt anyone has spent more time working on Winterreise than Ian Bostridge—not even Schubert. The English tenor of course has a recording of the cycle to his name, to say nothing of countless performances around the world. There’s the ultra-artsy dramatized film he made of the piece in 1994 with the director David Alden. His brilliant ruminations on the cycle, published in 2015, bear the apt subtitle “Anatomy of an Obsession.”
The most recent fruit of Bostridge’s fortunate fixation arrived at the Rose Theater this weekend. Under the auspices of Mostly Mozart, he gave two performances of Hans Zender’s 1993 orchestral arrangement of Winterreise, with the help of the International Contemporary Ensemble in the pit.
I say “arrangement,” but Zender’s work is much more than that word suggests; he’s gone far beyond merely transcribing the piece for a larger band. What he has created is more transformation than transcription, retaining Schubert’s basic ideas and amplifying them. He begins the cycle with a long, slow accumulation of skeletal sounds from the pit—brushed percussion, violins smacking the strings col legno, and the like, all in perfect time, until the noises gradually take form in the familiar opening of “Gute Nacht.” The quick, lonely trot of Schubert’s wanderer is now almost four minutes of maddening drip-torture. With the addition of pressed strings, the frantic energy of “Erstarrung” becomes a life-or-death scrape. Perhaps the most ingenious alteration is in “Die Nebensonnen,” where Zender layers the hymn-like melody over itself, reflecting the vision of three suns by forcing the listener to “hear triple.”
Psychological distress is inherent to Schubert’s original, and Zender’s transformation effectively magnifies their effect; it’s as though he’s turned up all the knobs on the amp to eleven. The result is deeply unsettling and cries out for a dramatic staging, and the one created by Bostridge and the director Netia Jones certainly fits the bill. There are only two apparent physical pieces to the set: a steep ramp, slanted towards stage-left, up which Bostridge often laboriously trudges on his journey, and a bare Linden tree, downstage-right, with a wicked kink halfway up its trunk.
The symbolism of these two set pieces aside, most of the heavy lifting in the dramatization is done by the captivating video projections behind, and of course by Bostridge himself. When we first see him at the opening of “Gute Nacht,” the tenor, dressed up like an old-timey music hall singer, is seated up on his incline in a wooden chair under a hanging lamp, as though being interrogated. As he reaches the end of the third stanza, the silhouette of a nightmarish hound appears behind him while he screams the text at the audience to the accompaniment of pounding percussion and screeching winds—it’s like something out of a Brecht–Weill fever dream.
Jones’s projections supply ample explanation for the title of these performances, “The Dark Mirror”: enthralling though often inscrutable, they seem to push the viewer towards psychological self-examination. During the deep reflection of “Auf dem Flusse,” Jones provokes an existential crisis by forcing us to stare for minutes on end into the inviting ripples of the brook. In several places, the projections lift material directly from the 1994 Alden film: suddenly we have the elder Bostridge, in the flesh, in conversation with his younger avatar.
The level of musical performance was of course excellent—under the direction of Baldur Brönnimann, ICE made the most of Zender’s brash peculiarities, and the slight boniness of Bostridge’s tenor makes him an ideal fit for this unforgiving piece. Honestly, though, the music seemed to disappear into the fabric of the drama—which is just fine. Where Schubert’s original engenders through its gorgeous sorrow a deep weariness of spirit, the gashes Zender inflicts on the score cause a much more acute and immediate sort of distress. “The Dark Mirror” is not Winterreise, really; but it’s a disturbingly effective drama in its own right.
It’s an old joke that Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival is often Mozart, but never mostly. Their concert the weekend before “The Dark Mirror” was in fact entirely Beethoven, but to complain would be absurd: to hear the great master played this well is always a treat, no matter who’s giving the performance.
They started with the Egmont overture, that classic of orchestral sturm-und-drang. Louis Langrée and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra gave a superb account of the piece, crisp and tight, the sound bristling. The dramatic sense of Langrée’s interpretation was spot-on, brooding early on and ending in blaring triumph.
I hadn’t heard Beatrice Rana before this concert; I hope to hear her again soon. Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (the second, chronologically speaking, as is constantly observed) is a difficult piece to pull off convincingly, the first of its author’s piano concertos that begins to show the formation of his truly independent voice. Play it too gingerly, and it sounds like Mozart warmed over; get too aggressive, and you smother it.
Rana’s reading threaded the needle. Her buoyant touch brought the music springing out of the piano, and her subtlest dynamics were perfectly executed—a perfectly even crescendo is difficult to accomplish on a keyboard, but she made it look effortless. But beyond mere facility, she showed a real understanding of the piece, fitting every gesture neatly into its context, and finding the emotional depth lying beneath Beethoven’s unassuming melodies.
Schubert’s Ninth Symphony was originally programmed for this concert, and under most circumstances the switch to Beethoven 7 might have been a disappointment—not for any shortcomings of the piece itself, but because it appears on concert programs in New York twice a year, while Schubert’s “Great” C-major shows up a few times each decade. For a performance this exceptional of the Seventh, the sacrifice was worth it.
There was nothing especially adventurous about Langrée’s reading, but audacity is not what makes him an outstanding conductor. You’d scarcely find a more by-the-book reading, nor one so well realized. His tempos were perfect from the start, as he traced the thrilling contours of the introduction’s cascading scales, and led the orchestra through the bounding joy of the first movement with shining tone. The celebrated Allegretto was intricately rendered, teasing out the emotive force of the smallest details. The trio sections of the third movement, so often funereal, were for once truly majestic, and the Finale was exhilarating—just the slightest bit out of control, which is perfect.
Taken together, these two performances are a perfect illustration of just how vibrant the Mostly Mozart Festival has become, thanks to the brilliant leadership of Langrée and Artistic Director Jane Moss: under one banner, great performances of classic repertoire and gripping new pieces are presented side-by-side. It’s hard to imagine summers in New York without this gem of a festival.