Franz Schubert - Winterreise ('A Winter's Journey'), D.911
Thursday 21 July 2022, 7:30pm
Adelaide Town Hall
Allan Clayton, voice
Kate Golla, piano
Lindy Hume, director
Fred Williams, artist
David Bergman, videographer
Matthew Marshall, design & lighting
What stands out in my memory now? First of all, that the music was wonderful, and I loved how Allan Clayton and Kate Golla sang and played it.
Franz Schubert’s Winterreise is a kind of 1820s singer-songwriter concept album of 24 songs for voice and piano, all written (in character) in response to a love affair gone wrong. The poems (by Wilhelm Müller) are in the voice of a man who has been rejected by his love. Compelled to leave her behind, he is journeying through a German winter wasteland, filled with snow and ice, destination nowhere. The music and words together are quintessential early romanticism: deeply melancholy, in love with nature, in love with love (especially unrequited), and unashamedly naïve with heart-on-the-sleeve expression.
It’s easy to overdo, and turn the whole thing into a melodrama that no one could ever take seriously in our cynical postmodern age. But this performance had just the right balance between simplicity and drama. Kate Golla, despite her face being in the spotlight throughout, almost disappeared into one of the most unobtrusive piano accompaniments I’ve ever heard. Every note was there, and everything was expressively played, but nothing – and I mean nothing – was overdone.
And Allan Clayton was a convincing winter wanderer, striding around the full stage space with a shaggy beard, making everyone (except the editor of the surtitles) believe that he meant every line he sang. I was impressed at the emotional range of his voice, how he brought out a slightly different sound for each song, and made all this expressive singing sound like the most natural thing in the world for his voice to do (rather than an elite challenge that he had spent his life training for).
If I’d gone along to this concert blindfolded, I would have loved it without a doubt. Possibly I’d still have some reservations about how ‘polished’ it sounded, and wish for a more rustic, unkempt, frostbitten Winterreise next time; but it’s not really fair to complain about something being too good.
But that wasn’t all there was to it. The piano was positioned at an angle (hiding the keys) inside two walls of a rectangle, creating a right-angled screen behind the performers on which images could be displayed. These showed subtly animated images from paintings by Fred Williams, a 20th-century Australian artist. Semi-abstract and filled with much seemingly empty space, it was art that spectacularly evoked the vastness and ruggedness of the Australian outback. The chosen paintings were not particularly ‘wintry’, apart from the snowy Kosciusko pieces, but they gave a new and perhaps more locally familiar landscape to the songs as we heard them.
I liked the idea, I really did, and it seemed to work OK at the time. But the more I have reflected on it, the more I find it rather gimmicky. Reading about it in the program hasn’t helped. In his introduction, Paul Kildea (artistic director of Musica Viva Australia) mentions the songs’ and paintings’ shared fascination with landscape, but seems reluctant to draw any further comparisons. ‘Rather than looking for literal overlaps between poems and paintings… we have sought to underline the universal qualities in the work of these three great artists.’
The problem is that Winterreise is not just an abstract work of art, but actually rather specific in its purpose and meaning. By pairing it with some paintings of a totally different nature, you abstractify it. This, indeed, seems to be the mission: ‘to celebrate the timelessness and universality of Schubert’s great work,’ as director Lindy Hume writes. This probably explains why they infuriatingly left out most of the surtitles; presumably they didn’t want us to get too clear a picture of what the man was singing so earnestly about, lest we see that it didn’t quite fit with their carefully animated Fred Williams paintings.
But if you blur, obscure, or take away the heart of the artwork – its actual, specific subject – what’s the point? It turns Winterreise into a piece about ‘art’ instead of about what it’s actually about. I’m not saying that there aren’t universal meanings to these songs, but the reason they work so well is because Schubert and Müller used very specific imagery, and a specific story, set in a specific landscape. When you make it abstract again, it loses some of its power. No one likes to read a story in abstractions.
The confusion was perhaps best summed up by the poetry. Judith Nangala Crispin was commissioned to write 24 stanzas for the program booklet, ostensibly to match the 24 songs of Winterreise and to connect them somehow to the paintings of Fred Williams. It was an impossible task, so she simply wrote 24 poems that imagined Fred Williams in his own landscapes, chasing an elusive white emu. I could not discern anything of Schubert and Müller’s bitter, lovelorn wanderer in that.
A lot of careful thought had gone into the staging, the lighting and the musical performance. I wish the same passion and attention to detail had been used at the conceptual stage of this project. Schubert and Müller spent hours on those songs. Fred Williams spent hours on those paintings. But the idea of putting them together seems more like a whim.
And they tried to make it work, they really did. But why?
To be clear: I’m not against the idea of presenting music in new ways, and looking for interesting connections between very different works of art. I applaud Musica Viva for doing something like this, and I should restate that on the whole I very much enjoyed the experience – and the way it has made me think subsequently!