Winter’s icy blast at the Wigmore

Snowy Path (Krakow, Poland)

On Saturday, I attended an interesting study day at the Wigmore Hall, entitled Capturing a Moment: the Art of Photographing Music and based around the fantastic career of Clive Barda. If you have anything at all to do with classical music and opera, you’ve seen Barda’s work: he’s probably the foremost photographer of musicians, both on stage (for formal rehearsal photographs, for example) and off stage.

He was charmingly straightforward as he talked about the interpersonal – as opposed to technical – aspects of his photographic art. A film retrospective, directed by Philippe Monnet, was part of the day and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in music and opera.  There’s a Youtube trailer that’s certainly worth a couple of minutes of anyone’s time:

One slight snag with the day was that the Wigmore was a little chilly, which led to an idle speculation that the cold desolation of the previous night’s winter’s journey had somehow lingered into the Saturday. Friday night had seen the second of Simon Keenlyside’s Winterreise performances, with Emmanuel Ax accompanying. It was astounding in its intensity and raw power.

When talking about photography, Barda had talked about how a note “has a split-second peak when the expression of the performer is all of a piece with the music”. Had he been there on the Friday, he would have had opportunities aplenty to capture such moments of instantaneous communication. With his nervy, restless demeanour, Keenlyside excels at putting across a visual impression of turmoil, loneliness, desperation to amplify the text and music, only to then still himself at a key moment and raise the emotional temperature yet further. The close of the cycle – the final bars of Der Leiermann – were unearthly, perhaps even eerie, in their blanched tone, married to the singer’s frozen expression, where so much active soul-searching had gone before.

Some would no doubt cavil at the lack of a lieder singer’s finesse and cultivation: this was raw, emotional singing, with Keenlyside in powerful voice, using its granularity to great effect. Vividly, he conveyed the impression that he might have approached it as text, reading it, declaiming it; and then built back in Schubert’s heartwrenching melody. Ax, by contrast, provided a more muted accompaniment, always graceful and shaded, and nicely underlining the irrepressible onward tread: even through changing moods across different songs, that seems to be the work’s overall message. You may have been hurt, you may be crushed, but no you may not just give up: you must keep onwards. The contrast between pianist and singer brought that out beautifully.

In reflecting on Kaufmann’s interpretation at Covent Garden a few months back, I confessed to not quite ‘getting’ Winterreise; what was its essential narrative? I am some way closer to understanding it after Friday night. The lyrics that struck me most noticeably this time were from Das Wirtshaus (“The Inn”), near the close of the cycle: arriving at a graveyard, the traveller feels invited in by the sight of green funeral wreaths:

Are all the rooms, then
taken in this house?
I am weary, ready to sink,
wounded unto death.

O pitiless inn,
yet you turn me away?
On, then, ever onwards,
my trusty staff!

A quite remarkable evening.

(Translation from the programme text by
Richard Stokes, from his ‘Book of Lieder’)

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