Sir Thomas Allen at the National Concert Hall, 5 October 2014
A complete performance of Franz Schubert’s song-cycle Winterreise (Winter Journey) is rare in Dublin; to hear it given by an artist as renowned as veteran British baritone Sir Thomas Allen makes this concert all the more special. There is certainly an air of expectation in the audience, as much for the work as for the singer himself, and neither disappoint. Having turned 70 last month, this recital is one of a short tour of Britain and Ireland, a lap of honour for a performer more associated with the opera stage than the concert hall. Through his career Sir Thomas has done much to promote the work of younger artists, and this is perhaps reflected in his choice of accompanist, the up-and-coming British pianist Joseph Middleton.
Winterreise follows a dark emotional journey, borne out of loneliness and despair, the nightmare of the Romantic artist driven awry. As poetry it charts a simple narrative – the flight of a lovelorn wanderer through a wintry landscape – but also presents a complex interplay of allegory and psychology, the clashing of inner and outer worlds, of fantasy, reality, and memory. With Sir Thomas Allen casting himself as ‘the wanderer’, the element of time is inevitably reinforced: here is an older man looking back on his life, and on a time of self-doubt and struggle. The crisp theatricality – instinctive for one with so much stage experience – is established from the opening song. Of all recital programmes, Winterreise exposes the singer especially, and there are moments during the cycle that verge on difficult listening, with Sir Thomas allowing his voice to show its age. However, in this he makes a virtue of necessity, draining colour from the music only to bring it back with forceful assurance at telling points, notably in the waywardness of ‘Irrlicht’ (Will-o-the-wisp) and ‘Das Wirtshaus’ (The Inn), or the defiance of ‘Mut’ (Courage), as if evoking the wanderer’s ‘old fire’. With this warmth comes a depth of emotion expressed in such songs as the familiar ‘Der Lindenbaum’ (The Lime Tree).
If it is a marathon for him – and these 24 songs involve more singing than many operatic roles – the strain does not show. What shines through is the singer’s well-honed intelligence, in terms of both physical pacing and sustained musical interpretation. Ably and stylishly accompanied throughout by Middleton, the momentum of the cycle maintains its hold right to the end. In the final two songs, ‘Die Nebensonnen’ (The Phantom Suns) and ‘Der Leiermann’ (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man), singer and pianist project a rapt sense of impassioned stillness, at the end of which Sir Thomas holds the audience in a beautifully extended moment of silence, before the inevitable applause that follows. Standing ovations have become all too common in recent years, but on this occasion the audience’s reaction is spontaneous and well-deserved.
Schubert, Winterreise, D911