Sunday 15 May 2016

Zender's Winterreise at the Barbican, or, Just Because You Can Doesn't Mean You Should

Note: This is a review of the performance on Thursday 12th May 2016.

The original version of Schubert's song cycle Winterreise is, in the right hands, one of the most searing pieces in the repertoire. Although it requires only two performers it possesses remarkable emotional and musical range. I was sceptical in advance about whether the work could be improved, or even equalled, either via orchestration or, particularly, the addition of multimedia elements. Committed performances from Ian Bostridge and the Britten Sinfonia under Baldur Bronnimann did not convince me otherwise.

I mistakenly thought, until I read the programme afterwards, that Zender's orchestration dated from the Weimar era, in fact it dates from the early 1990s – possibly I was misled by elements in the design of this performance which seemed rather influenced by the world of Kander & Ebb's Cabaret. Schubert's original is still largely detectable, and the additions are not challenging but rather bring to mind other familiar voices such as Bartok, Strauss, Wagner and, obviously, Weimar cabaret. The sound world stretches from slightly twisted Schubertesque chamber music to Hammer Horroresque film score. Overall, it struck me musically as an interesting occasional piece but one which suffers from fundamental weaknesses in comparison to the original. Zender is so busy bigging up effects that he doesn't leave the space for the listener's imagination that the original piano accompaniment allows. More seriously it manages, for me, to lose the emotional power of that original. The finest moments, tellingly, came when the orchestration was sparest and Bostridge was delivering the vocal line straight out (Der Wegweiser and Das Wirtshaus in particular).

The other weakness of the evening was the multimedia element created by Netia Jones. I have enormously admired some of her work in the past – the superb Knussen double bill at the Aldeburgh Festival springs to mind. But here I just felt inspiration was lacking. We get a lot of rather samey projections of wintry landscapes and/or Bostridge's face in close-up endeavouring to look like a tortured romantic hero. It just doesn't feel to me as if it adds anything. Schubert's music possesses an abundance of emotional pain and environmental atmosphere for singer and pianist to develop in their own, in the best performances, subtle directions – Zender and Jones in their different media fall victim to ineffective overemphasis. Jones's direction of Bostridge's movements also doesn't help – his various wanderings up and down the ramp at the back, or around the flat front stage area with its large tree feel ineffective. Again, the staging is at its best when it is stillest.

In sum, Zender's orchestration is worth hearing once and the Britten Sinfonia and Bronnimann are high class advocates for it. Bostridge gets some lovely effects, and while there's a bit of wear in the voice in places I don't fault him for the fact that I was largely unmoved (the duo of songs mentioned earlier suggests what might be achieved with less). As for the multimedia staging it did not change my present feelings that there is too much of this about and it is too variable in quality. This is not, finally, an effective piece of musical theatre. The work (with different forces and sans multimedia) is also being performed at the Edinburgh Festival this summer – losing the film might well improve it.

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