Ian Bostridge at 2023’s Schubertiade festival. The camerawork: the editor’s own

When singing meets scholarship...

...at the Schubertiade. This festival in Austria is the sort of thing that would face the chop in Britain. It should be cherished 
September 7, 2023

For Ian Bostridge, Schubert’s Winterreise is more than a song cycle: it is an obsession—such an obsession that he once wrote a 500-page book about it. The British tenor (and Prospect columnist) has thought as deeply as anyone alive about its poetry, its music, its meaning and its significance.

He first performed it in public nearly 40 years ago, having heard two great Germans, Hermann Prey and Peter Schreier, sing it in London—and he has been singing it ever since.

In the best possible way, it shows.

His umpteenth performance of the work at this year’s Schubertiade festival in Austria was compelling in its intensity and gripping in its narrative arc. More than most singers, Bostridge treats the 24 songs as a journey, both literal and spiritual. There is a sense of emotional disintegration over the 80 minutes of this winter journey. Not for nothing, as Bostridge reminds us, was Winterreise a favourite of Samuel Beckett.

This inevitably means that not all of the songs sound uniformly “beautiful”. Over the years, Bostridge has, in effect, developed three voices. The first is operatic, and comes into play in passages that are declamatory, tortured, theatrical—just this side of histrionic. The second is lyrical—gently melodic, exquisitely phrased and sweet, with all tension gone. And the third is almost a whisper—a confiding, internal voice, sometimes anxious, sometimes doubtful, dramatically reinforced during some of the accompanying piano passages by Bostridge turning away from the audience to stare into the piano.

“The more you put into something,” my mother used to tell me,” the more you get out of it.” That mini-homily applies to both performer and listener. Few could doubt that Bostridge’s enormous investment of effort in exploring this work pays off in the depth of understanding he brings to it.

Equally, time spent reading Bostridge’s own thoughts help the listener come to a richer understanding of the work. A tiny example from the 14th song, in which the singer explains why he takes an unusually long pause after the words: Wie weit noch bis zur Bahre! (“How far is it still to the grave!”).

“It is,” he says, “an extended, unnatural, almost unmusical silence in which Schubert, the musicians and the audience look into the abyss.” Thus briefed, I was waiting for the pause—and ,when it came, I understood exactly what he, and Schubert, intended.

The culminative effect was emotionally exhausting, as it should be. Bostridge was partnered with the Italian pianist, Saskia Giorgini, who showed an exceptional sensitivity to his phrasing and careful placing of notes.

After a number of standing ovations, Bostridge broke his own prohibition on encores after this particular work—performing Britten’s haunting arrangement of “O Waly, Waly”, the Somerset folk song collected by Cecil Sharp.

This was the closest we got to modern music during my days in Schwarzenberg, the little village in the Bregenzerwald region of West Austria that (together with nearby Hohenems) has hosted this festival since 1976.

The Arts Council of England (ACE) would not, I think, approve of this annual gathering, which was the brainchild of Hermann Prey, along with Gerd Nachbauer, who is still running the show nearly 50 years later. It ticks virtually none of the boxes that these days demand to be ticked. Its audience, which does not number many spring chickens, doesn’t seem to mind.

There have been times, over the years, when I have worried that the Schubertiade had become something of an aural museum dedicated to the works of a few classical and romantic masters (itself a radical departure from the original aim to perform just the works of Schubert in chronological order).

This year, I fretted no more, and just settled back to savour what even ACE might acknowledge as a “high quality cultural experience”. Over three days, I heard nothing but masterpieces performed by the best imaginable players. Coming from a country that increasingly seems indifferent to its classical music, this is not nothing.

The previous day, Francesco Piemontesi played Schubert’s Sonata in G, D 894; his Brendel training showing through in the perfect balancing of chords; in an understated simplicity and in the overall sense of architecture. His account of Debussy’s second book of Preludes—a daring nod to the 20th century—was also special.

Two days later, we were back to hear Daniel Ottensamer, principal clarinet of the Vienna Philharmonic, with the Elias String Quartet in a velvety performance of Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet. Ottensamer’s caressing tones blended perfectly with the strings in an almost mystical exploration of the adagio movement. And, after the interval, more Schubert of course.

It was a rainier than usual week, with none of the autumnal hay-making in the fields right outside the concert hall (you don’t get that at the Barbican). But the particular magic of this festival was still in the air. Long may it last.

This article originally appeared in Prospect's free weekly The Culture newsletter, which you can sign up for here. You can listen to Ian Bostridge singing Schubert’s Winterreise on our Spotify page