The angry, ardent, desperate hero of Schubert’s song-cycle Winterreise (Winter Journey) is many things, but mostly he’s just alone.
Wandering through the darkened streets of a town while watchdogs bark, stumbling across the countryside, he loses himself in an uneasy blend of fantasy and memory, spiralling deeper and deeper into despair.
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We’re happy to encounter isolation and depression in the concert hall, dressed in a dinner suit, smoothed over by melody, but far less keen to discuss it in real life – something tenor David Webb, who has been open about his struggles with mental health, was keen to address. Undertaking his own winter journey – a cycle ride of 500 miles around London – in aid of charities MIND and Music Minds Matter, followed by a performance of Winterreise at the Wigmore Hall.
In a twist, Webb wasn’t alone on the stage. He was joined by friends and fellow tenors Alessandro Fisher and Rupert Charlesworth and baritone Benedict Nelson. The effect was striking. Just the physical presence of four bodies around Iain Burnside’s piano, three listening closely while each one sang, changed the charge of the piece. Were we watching multiple people, each on their own journey, or just multiple selves?
It’s a device that makes sense of the cycle’s many quick shifts of mood. Sharing the first song “Gute Nacht” (Goodnight), with its subtly different verses, allowed each singer to take on a different persona: Nelson’s baritone bringing new darkness after Webb and Charlesworth’s brighter beginnings, and finally Fisher’s honeyed tenor introducing unexpected hope in the major-key closing.
Taking short sequences of songs each, the singers developed their own wanderers into fully fleshed-out characters. Charlesworth’s lean, agile voice gave us the neurotic urgency of “Letzte Hoffnung” (Last Hope) and the chilly intensity of “Erstarrung” (Numbness), freezing the turbulent waves of Burnside’s accompaniment, while Webb’s softer, simpler lover offered brief respite under the Linden Tree, with its eddying piano leaves.
It was Nelson who took us into the dark heart of the piece in the increasingly bitter sequence including “Ruckblick” (Backward Glance) and “Rast” (Rest), and Fisher who – throughout – offered balm and the possibility of better, weighting and shaping Wilhelm Muller’s verses with such care.
There was plenty of beauty here, but it was the bravery – both in the unaffected honesty of the singing and the thoughtful spoken introductions – that melted the ice on this winter journey.
David Webb’s Winter Journey, Wigmore Hall, London, streaming at wigmore-hall.org.uk