The first few minutes of each of these recordings of Schubert’s overwhelming song cycle hardly seem to belong to the same work.
Klaus Mertens , more familiar in sacred music and now in his late fifties, is introduced by a clangorous fortepiano, none too sensitively banged by Tini Mathot, and sounds like an elderly workman off to the day’s slog. Christine Schäfer, who never sounds more than 16, is launched by the perky tones of Eric Schneider, and when she enters it is as a cheerful small bird greeting the sun. Schäfer raises the issue of whether this cycle should be sung by a woman at all, but Lotte Lehmann, Christa Ludwig and above all Brigitte Fassbaender prove that it canRead more be, with magnificent results. But Schäfer has a much lighter voice than any of those, giving more the impression of a too-youthful teenager leaving home before he should. And yet, as the work progresses – each succeeding song more harrowing than the one before, until the desolating sequence of the last half-dozen leaves one numb and raw contemplating the wanderer’s anguish – she rises to the challenges. She shows herself to be a distinctive artist, who manages to add something to our appreciation of Winterreise, though the recording is not always able to cope with her outbursts, and she is too closely miked. This couldn’t be a first recommendation, but I would not want to be without it. Meanwhile Mertens goes on very much as he started. He still has a beautiful and rich voice, and there is no reason why the wanderer shouldn’t be mature. But it is also an inflexible voice, and with unperceptive accompanying (Schäfer’s Schneider, on the other hand, illuminates the accompaniment of nearly every song) he makes this nothing much more than a 75-minute trudge through uninviting scenery. By the time he reached the end my main hope was that he would stop whingeing, while with Schäfer I wanted to join her and the hurdy-gurdy man in the hope of easing their burden.