A Winter’s Journey, Franz Schubert’s song cycle set to 24 poems by Wilhelm Muller is composed in two parts, each containing twelve songs. The first is set in February 1827 and the second in October of the same year, and narrates a story about despair and the soul of a rejected lover. He leaves his home at night and embarks on a journey; dark and barren landscapes greet him on his travels, a man tortured by his innermost feelings of love and thoughts of his own death and loneliness.
In this new performance space, the Howard Assembly Rooms, part of the Leeds Grand Theatre and now the new permanent home of Opera North as a performance and rehearsal venue, the intimacy, acoustic and ambience of the hall was the perfect setting for such a concert, with the added medium of using song and film together, in this joint venture by Opera North and Leeds City Art Gallery and the talents of German born artist and film maker Mariele Neudecker, made for a most enlightening evening with two very different arts forms, which successfully fused into a visual and engaging recital.
The concept of applying moving images to Schubert, complemented the music far more than I thought it would. It was not a distraction, nor did it steal or take away from the beauty of the voice and piano. Each of the 24 songs, accompanied by its own film depicting a stage in the journey that was filmed in Shetland, Oslo, Helsinki and St Petersburg during the winter months of 2003. By using just a chair and a suitcase on the platform, it transformed the recital performance into a theatrical, semi-staged work.
Lancashire born bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams, gave a strong and fine vocal performance. It is a considerable task in itself just to hold all of this together for the duration of the 24 songs without pause for well over an hour.This is in essence a very beautiful instrument, with careful phrasing and considerate attention to the detail of the music and verse. The rich velvety middle of his voice stirs up the musical emotion of the work and he executes this all with apparent ease. My only concern would be the occasional excessive boom to his voice; less would be better for such an intimate piece and for the size of hall. As a result, the vocal line maintained no distinction between the colours which are needed to convey the desperation of feelings in Muller’s text. None of this however, can detract from the talented musicality and the quality of the sound that he produces.
Foster-Williams was accompanied at the piano by
Christopher Gould, whose performance and musical vigilance gave gravitas to the piece and showed
the equal importance of the pianist to that of the singer. His sensitive and intelligent playing depicted neatly the
many flourishes of Schubert’s score and Muller’s poems, such as the effects of nature, the harsh echo of the
elements, rushing storms, howling icy winds, the water under the ice, ravens croaking and birds singing.
This imaginative and engaging collaborative partnership, succeeded in making this a very enjoyable evening, with the images provided by Neudecker adding an extra dimension to the exploration of the music. It is also very good news that Opera North now has its very own venue, in which it can experiment with smaller and more intimate works that would be impossible to undertake in the main house. Since the opening last year, they have already put together an exciting and challengingly diverse programme of events. With its commitment to education and engaging with audiences both old and new, one can look forward to many more enterprising performances.