Michael Volle (baritone)
Helmut Deutsch (piano)
One of the glories of the Munich Opera Festival is its series of Lieder recitals: not those curious concerts one hears of elsewhere, in which ‘star’ singers sing miscellaneous operatic arias, accompanied by pick-up-bands who occasionally throw in an overture or two, but serious song recitals. Londoners are, of course, spoiled when it comes to such matters, with the Wigmore Hall unquestionably supreme in the world as a song and chamber venue, but a festival in which Jonas Kaufmann and Michael Volle offer recitals, the latter a late replacement for an indisposed René Pape, has nothing to fear from comparisons. Pape’s promised programme had intrigued: whoever would have thought of his luxurious, ever-so-German bass in Roger Quilter? (Mussorgsky and Schumann were more like it.) Nevertheless, it was not remotely a disappointment to be faced with the prospect of a Winterreise from Volle and Helmut Deutsch; nor was it a disappointment in reality.
Having recently heard Kaufmann, with the same pianist, at the Royal Opera House, comparisons were always likely to suggest themselves, however much one strained to take the performance on its own terms. In the abstract, I tend to think that my preference is for a tenor in this cycle, but, as when one hears great recorded baritone performances from the past, the question never presented itself. Occasionally, my ear reminded me that it was not hearing the ‘right’ key, but even when it did so, I was not remotely troubled by the reminder. For, if there is no ‘ideal’ performance of this work in the singular, there are surely a good few ‘ideals’, and Volle comes as close to anyone in the plural. His is not a performance imbued with existential Angst from the outset; this is not the expressionism of, say, a Matthias Goerne. Indeed, ‘Gute Nacht’ sounded convincingly as a continuation if not from the end of Die schöne Müllerin – for the story there ends all too clearly – then from the world in which much of the earlier cycle takes place. There was plenty of scope then, for development, for a different turn to be taken, but what that turn might be was not yet inevitable. We might know that hopes would be frustrated, but we could sense, whether from Volle’s even-handed attention to words, to music, to their alchemy, or from Deutsch’s equal yet different dramatic precision in the piano part. Indeed, at times it seemed, intriguingly and convincingly, that Schubert’s musical forms and figurations, be they quasi-‘autonomous’ or clearly derived from the words, were as much a driving force as Wilhelm Müller’s poem itself, Schubert’s still under-explored closeness to Wagner made manifest.
Although I have not yet heard Volle as Wotan, there was something of the god’s Walküre monologues to our hero’s self-laceration, one in which, even at the extremity of, say, ‘Letzte Hoffnung’, this remained song, and Romantic song at that. Part and parcel of that characterisation, and certainly in no way opposed to it, was Deutsch’s pinpointing of the stabbing piano part: never can it have sounded closer to that arch-late-Romantic, Anton Webern, than here. What the most crucial turning-point(s) will be in this most chilling of descents will always be a matter of debate, whether in terms of performance or one’s own reception. Here, I could not help but think that it was this moment of ‘last hope’, still more than the signpost of ‘Der Wegweiser’ in which the moment of no turning back came. That there were several candidates, not competing but furthering the claims of each other, spoke very well of a narrative experience that held one spellbound throughout. The final extremes of no room at the Wirtshaus, the hallucinatory shining of three winter suns, and that terrifying, inevitable numbness of a finely observed, quite un-hysterical ‘Der Leiermann’ took us where we had to go, and in a sense, like the ‘hero’, we welcomed it as necessary catharsis. This was a less operatic Winterreise than Kaufmann’s. (Not that there is necessarily anything wrong with operatic influence, for every great artist will bring something different from his strengths and experience.) If anything, I think it touched me even more deeply, with an Innigkeit that seemed to find its source in the very heart of German Romanticism. For this seemed to be less ‘Volle’s Winterreise’ than Winterreise, pure and simple, however illusory that idea(l) might be.