Franz Schubert's masterful song cycle Die Winterreise is a late work dating from 1827 -- 1828. Schubert set 24 poems by a contemporary poet, Wilhelm Muller, who was also the poet of Schubert's earlier song cycle, Die Schone Mullerein. Although both cycles are by the same poet, and involve tales of wandering and love lost, their music is highly different. Die Schone Mullerein is flowing, melodic, and lyrical while Die Winterreise is bleak and declamatory --- speech-like in places -- with minor-key melodies, passionate outbursts in the midst of sad, subdued melodies, persistent throbbing rhythms, and harmonic experimentation.
Die Winterreise is the story of a nameless young wanderer who falls in love with a girl and expects to marry her. He is soon rejected, and the girl marries another. The young man, dejected, wanders alone throughout a harsh winter,with his songs of sorrow and loneliness and wish for death. Die Winterreise is a deeply moving, difficult work in its themes of loss, rejection, and, possibly, of hope and redemption.
The 24 songs have a cumulative effect as the cycle is performed. The character of the work becomes increasingly bleak as the wanderer proceeds on his journey. The first song, "Gute Nacht" sets the tone, as, to a repeated dirge-like accompaniment, the wanderer leaves his beloved's home and sets out on his journey. "Der Lindenbaum" (no. 5) with its rustling accompaniment has achieved the status of a folk-melody. In the last third of the work, beginning with "Der greise Kopf" and "Die Krahe" (nos. 14 and 15) the intensity and sadness of the work increase dramatically. Song 22, "Mut" is a useless cry for courage, and the final two songs "Die Nebensonnen" and "Der Leiermann" are musical cries of emotional deterioration with, in the final song, a possible hint of hope.
For many listeners, performances of Schubert's great song cycle begin and end with the recordings of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Great as his renditions are, Die Winterreise transcends any individual interpreter or reading. There are many recordings of this music that cast their own light on this music. Among these recordings is this budget-priced reading by baritone Christian Gerhaher and pianist Gerold Huber available on Arte Nova Classics. The recording dates from 2001, but was released only in 2007 on Arte Nova. In 2002, the CD received the Echo Klassik award in Germany for best lieder interpretation -- an award that was fully deserved.
Gerhaher was trained as a physician but in 1998 decided to devote himself to singing. He is gaining a world-wide reputation both in opera and as a lieder singer. Gerold Huber is Gerhaher's regular accompanist and performs frequently as a soloist as well. In addition to Die Winterreise, the pair has recorded Schubert's "Die Schone Mullerin" and "Schwanengesang" for Arte Nove as well as collections of lieder by Schubert and Schumann on higher-priced labels. Their collaboration on Die Winterreise is a joy. Gerhaher has a rich, deeply expressive voice, and he is at his best in bringing out the declamatory outbursts of Die Winterreise. His voice captures the sadness and pathos of this romantic cycle. Huber is an equal partner in the work, both in accompanying Gerhaher and in the many preludes and postludes in the songs in which the piano sings alone.
Die Winterreise is music to hear and return to when one is sad and alone. For all the unhappiness of the young wanderer, this music ultimately helps gladden my heart. This recording by Gerhaher and Huber deserves a high place among many wonderful recordings of this score.