Friday 9 December 2011

Total immersion in a musical world

Why perform Schubert's Winterreise with puppets and animation?

When something has been around for ever, there’s a danger that we cease to notice it. Schubert’s great song-cycle Winterreise is no exception. Even people who spend a good deal of their time at song recitals at the Wigmore Hall will find themselves thinking around the piece, rather than simply subjecting themselves to it. They’ll be comparing past performances, and, worse, they’ll be mesmerised by the performing manner they’ve become accustomed to – a manner quite unknown to Schubert himself. I remember Hermann Prey flinging his arms up in the air and shouting ‘Nooooo!’ when an audience had the presumption to applaud after the first part of Winterreise – applause tacitly invited by the layout of the programme. Ridiculous behaviour – on the part of the singer, who interrupted his own performance much more than the strangely appreciative audience had.

I’ve played Winterreise more than any other piece, probably. David Wilson-Johnson and I recorded it on a piano of Schubert’s time back in 1984, in the poet’s order. (That’s a can of worms for another day.) And since then I’ve done it with Philip Langridge and John Tomlinson, taught it to dozens of students, lectured on it with horrid regularity, and given the London premiere of Franz Liszt’s version for solo piano.

So I thought I knew the piece when, some years ago now, Thomas Guthrie asked me to accompany his version with three-quarter life-size puppet and animation. And the dramatic focus provided by the puppet transformed the experience for me. I found new things to enjoy – things I could take back into puppet-less performances with other singers.

But the point of Guthrie’s presentation is not to impress his accompanist, nor even to make regular listeners uncomfortable. There’s a whole lot of people who don’t like song recitals. Bloke in fancy dress waving his arms about if you clap, foreign language, frankly rather dull. These are the people who really get Guthrie’s Winterreise. And they get it in the same way that Schubert’s friends got it, by total immersion. They knew all the poems backwards before Schubert ever set them to music. They had what we would recognise as book clubs where they discussed the latest poetry and read it to each other. When Schubert came along with a song, it fitted straight into their cultural world.

There won’t be many book clubs devoting themselves to the poetry of Wilhelm Müller these days. But Guthrie’s theatrical presentation offers a new way to immerse yourself in the piece. We classical musicians should find other new ways to play other old music. Watch this space!


David Owen Norris will be accompanying Thomas Guthrie in performance of Winterreiseat the Tristan Bates Theatre from 12 to 17 December 2012, in a staging also directed by Guthrie and featuring puppetry and animation. The production is presented by Up In Arms.


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