Schubert Winterreise Genuin

Franz Schubert (1797–1828)
Winterreise op. 89, D 911 (1827, arr. Gregor Meyer for baritone, choir and two accordions)
Tobias Berndt (baritone)
Heidi Steger, Uwe Steger (accordions)
GewandhausChor/Gregor Meyer
rec. 2022/23, Mendelssohn-Saal, Gewandhaus Leipzig, Germany
Sung texts with English translation enclosed
Genuin GEN23847 [72]

Now here’s something a little different. Rearrangements and re-imaginings of Schubert’s song cycles are not exactly unusual, but I think Meyer might be the only person to use a chorus and this is actually Gregor Meyer’s second arrangement of Schubert’s popular song cycle. The first was for baritone, chorus and piano and was recorded in 2017 by singer Daniel Ochoa with Gregor Meyer conducting the Leipzig vocal consort and Christian Peix on the piano. This one unusually substitutes two accordions for the piano. Given that the accordion wasn’t invented until around 1822 in Berlin, it is unlikely that Schubert ever got to see or hear one. However, it does not sound anachronistic and indeed captures the sound of the hurdy-gurdy in the final song even more atmospherically than the piano. The accordions can also add a jaunty, folk-like colour to songs like Frülingstraum. Interestingly, Meyer is not the only person to rearrange the cycle for an accordion. Oboist Normand Forget made a chamber version for accordion and wind quintet (including bass clarinet, oboe d’amore and baroque horn) and this has been recorded by tenor Christoph Prégardien, accordionist Joseph Petric and the Montréal ensemble Pentaèdre. 

Meyer’s chorus first appears in the second stanza of the first song, Gute Nacht, almost imperceptibly creeping in on a wordless vocalise, which wonderfully conjures up a bleak, wintry scene. Thereafter they are a constant presence, sometimes joining in with the soloist, sometimes taking over the vocal lead or responding to him, sometimes still in wordless commentary, and sometimes, as in Der stürmische Morgen, taking over the whole song whilst the soloist remains silent. You might think the effect would be to distance us from the solitary traveller’s loneliness, but in fact it reinforces his utter desolation, the voices seeming part of an interior dialogue as the soloist struggles with his own inner demons.

In an arrangement such as this, the soloist’s function is perhaps somewhat different from normal, and Tobias Berndt fulfils his task admirably, knowing when the focus is on him, but realising when he needs to pull back and blend with the choir. He has a light, pleasing baritone which blends beautifully in the total sound picture. He may not make any startling revelations (those tend to come from the chorus and accordions) but nor is he bland or inexpressive. 

The GewandhausChor under Gregor Meyer are absolutely splendid, and the two accordion players, Heidi and Uwe Steger, are superb accompanists.

Of course, this arrangement cannot replace the original version for voice and piano, and most people will have their favourites (mine are Fischer-Dieskau and Demus and Kaufmann and Deutsch) but this is a fascinating and rewarding re-thinking of Schubert’s great song cycle. I really enjoyed it and one listening quickly became two, then three. I know it’s only January, but this is very likely to be one of my discs of the year. 

Philip Tsaras

Previous review: Göran Forsling (January 2024)

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