Schubert: Winterreise / Jorma Hynninen

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There are many great Finnish baritones, but Jorma Hynninen stands out as one who’s made a speciality of song and Lieder. He commands the field...
There are many great Finnish baritones, but Jorma Hynninen stands out as one who’s made a speciality of song and Lieder. He commands the field in Sibelius even now, when there are so many new artists exploring the material : He “made” Kullervo, for example, his powerful interpretations setting standards for all who take on the part. Naturally he has few peers in Finnish and Swedish repertoire. But Schubert occupies central ground in Lieder, and Hynninen has performed most of Schubert’s songs for baritone. Indeed, it was a legendary, stunning performance of Winterreise at the Ravinia Festival in the early 1980s that brought him to prominence in the United States, where he continues to have a huge following. This particular performance was made in 1988, in Finland, with Hynninen’s long-term pianist, Ralf Gothóni, another extremely prominent Finnish musician and specialist in song.

With something like 300 recordings of Winterreise available, why would anyone choose this particular one? I’m delighted with it because I don’t believe any Winterreise collection – or any song collection, for that matter – can afford to be without Hynninen. He has a distinctive style that suits this cycle very well. If Hynninen is good, so is Ralf Gothóni, an equally prominent Finnish musician and another song specialist. Indeed, it’s the interplay between them that makes this particular recording so worthwhile. If anything, Gothóni has a slight edge, which is no bad thing, as the piano part in Winterreise is sometimes overshadowed by spectacular singing. This is a very well-balanced performance, very natural sounding and unforced.

There are lots of ways to do Winterreise well, and this surprisingly tender approach is certainly a good one. Indeed, while listening to this, instead of hearing the protagonist’s anguish full blast, I kept thinking of what the singer was witnessing – frozen raindrops, the crow circling in a pale sky, the village cemetery. This is actually more important than is often realized, because for a big part of the Romantic ethos poets like Wilhelm Müller subscribed to the idea of landscape as a symbol of human feeling. Without the terminology of modern psychology, landscape provided a means to express complex emotion. Thus Schubert makes so much of the “visual” elements in the narrative. We are supposed to hear the raindrops, the rushing stream and the wind tearing through the trees. They are far more critical than is often appreciated. The cemetery, for example, is on the outskirts of the village: as he passes it, the protagonist is taking leave not just of the village but of the remains of its life and peace. Similarly, the crow may be the man’s only companion, but it is a carrion bird, whose apparent friendship the poet knows is sinister. Müller and Schubert lived in times when people spent much more of their time out and about, directly experiencing nature. We are spared that intensity, with our heated homes, tarmaced roads, protective clothes and electricity. Perhaps we’ve even lost some ability to experience Winterreise as Müller and Schubert did. For them, crossing a frozen stream by foot was a normal occurrence. The references to paths made by wild animals would have stirred clear memories.

How often do we now find ourselves alone in a vast deserted expanse, so cold it chills to the bone, and “hear the silence”? Early nineteenth century middle European winters were such that the entire landscape was shrouded so deeply in snow that all sounds were muffled and understated. That is another reason I like this performance. It captures a sense of profound stillness that allows the impact of the music to linger in the subconscious. Tempi here are restrained, contemplative rather than slow. Hynninen does pile on the histrionics, but sings with quiet understated grace. It’s as if he were savouring the scene before him, appreciating how the specific physical experience of the landscape is affecting the protagonist. We can almost see the eerily intense light reflected off the snow. The three suns in Die Nebensonnen are easy to imagine in this surreally intense light. And, above all, all sharpness and shrillness is absorbed in the blanket of snow. Thus Hynninen’s surprisingly gentle tenderness. It’s as if he understands the power of the landscape and its impact on the protagonist. Like the crow, offering false comfort, the snow may look peaceful but if the man stops, he’ll die. Thus the position of the final song. The man has already decided not to stay in the cemetery but to keep moving. When he sees the wandering beggar, bullied by village dogs, yet still, stubbornly winding his hurdy-gurdy, he decides to follow. Is the Leiermann a symbol of death and madness as if sometimes suggested? Or is he something more positive, perhaps a symbol of the power of music, or of self reliance? That is why Winterreise continues to fascinate me, no matter how often I’ve heard it. Hynninen’s protagonist, acutely observing the world around him, doesn’t seem crazed or deluded, even if he is on the point of death. Indeed, the tenderness of Hynninen’s approach brings out the human quality of the protagonist, making it easier to identify with him as Everyman rather than a maddened wreck. And Gothóni’s exquisite evocation of natural surroundings make it even more clear that this protagonist exists in a real setting, not just in his mind. The Nebensonnen are verified scientific phenomena, even if the protagonist doesn’t know. Müller possibly did, for, like many thinkers of his time, he dabbled in scientific curiosities.

A few years ago, there was a proposal to write an Excel programme about Winterreise, as if somehow inputting a lot of data could produce some kind of golden mean. That approach was just plain insane. Music can’t be mixed into some kind of soup and standardised. Each performance is an individual experience, an artistic whole, both for performers and for listeners. Until such time as good music is replaced by mechanical processed pap, listening will involve understanding and engagement. Until then, thank goodness for music like Winterreise, eternally stimulating and challenging, and for performances like this.

-- Anne Ozorio, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Release Date: December 11, 2008

  • UPC: 761195072523

  • Catalog Number: ODE725

  • Label: Ondine

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Period: Romantic

  • Composer: Franz Schubert

  • Performer: Jorma Hynninen, Ralf Gothóni