The English tenor and writer Ian Bostridge is happily and articulately fixed on a musical mountaintop: For 30 years he has been singing Franz Schubert’s deathbed song-cycle “Winterreise,” the “Winter Journey” of a desperate traveler toward madness and death. Think of these 24 songs as the first and all-time concept album, written in 1827 by another of those Viennese geniuses in the footprints of Mozart and Beethoven.
These are songs conceived by a 30-year old genius who knows he dying — of syphilis, it is said. Winterreise has the rattle of death in it, like Schubert’s most-played posthumous Piano Sonata in B-flat, and long soaring melodies as well. The cycle has an unearthly ring all through it, the sound of the heavens looking back on natural life. Or so it has often seemed to me. Ian Bostridge sings these Schubert songs as a path that many moderns still find themselves following — Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, Philip Seymour Hoffman come quickly to mind. Ian Bostridge’s omnidirectional book of reflections on the songs chase down a host of implications along the way.
The short form on Schubert (1797 – 1828): he was a demigod of musical Vienna in Beethoven time, popular and prolific. Hundreds of songs and chamber pieces, 7 finished symphonies and 1 famously unfinished one. But it’s this set of 24 songs, finished on his death bed, aged 31, that seals his genius. It makes almost any list of the faultless master creations in any category of art—up there with Don Quixote, the Taj Mahal, Moby Dick, My Fair Lady — and Ian Bostridge gets to live inside those songs on stage year after year and now inside this irresistible manual: Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession.
Winter Journey is a punctuated series of cries from the heart of a desperate traveler—sometimes melting, sometimes burning, mostly frozen by snow and ice—hail storms in his heart and a bitter wilderness outside as he plunges toward his own black graveyard. You can feel the frenzy in Bostridge’s sometimes grainy tenor; the standard “Winterreise” in our time has been the majestic, perhaps more stoical procession of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who made it a baritone’s piece. Either way, the piano voice in these songs is as marvelous as the singers, it’s not just accompaniment. And maybe the most distinctive touch in Wintereisse is that each of the 24 links in this headlong adventure — the story possibilities, connections and digressions in art, history, life, love, science, German unification, anything — fan out in every direction. We’re taking up Ian Bostridge invitation to listen carefully and then digress with him.