The Personal As Political: Ulrich Hartung Uncovers the Hidden Meaning in Schubert’s Winterreise
If you’re in a quirky mood, or want to jumpstart your brain, you can always resequence album tracks. And if you’re tired, or just lazy, you can always hit “shuffle play.” But would you consider reversing the order of the movements of, say, a Beethoven symphony, in concert? As a joke, maybe.
But what if rearranging the order of an iconic suite brought a hidden meaning to light? That’s what baritone Ulrich Hartung did with Schubert’s Winterreise suite Friday night at the Liederkranz Society, revealing it as not only a classic of proto-existentialist tunesmithing but also as a thinly veiled political broadside. Over the years there’s been a tempest in a teaspoon over how the suite should be performed: in the order that Schubert followed (the traditional way), or in the original sequence of Wilhelm Muller poems that the composer set to music? Hartung chose the latter and let the songs validate his claim, in the process raising the suite’s already haunting intensity several notches. What became inarguably clear only a few songs into it was that Schubert’s music follows precisely the same trajectory as the lyrics.
We often forget the brutal repression that so many classical composers toiled under. In the extensive program notes for the concert, an excerpt from his doctoral dissertation, Hartung reminded that both Schubert and Muller were subject to routine censorship under the pre-1848 dictatorship. Was it possible that Schubert shuffled the deck a little to get it past the censors? It would seem so. Schubert hasn’t been remembered as a freedom fighter: one simple move by Hartung, and the numerous others in his camp, changes that view considerably.
The suite has come down to us tagged as a Herrmann Hesse-like depiction of alienation and lovelorn angst, and that’s how it reads on the surface. “Fremd bin ich einzegogen, Fremd zieh ich wieder aus [I arrived a stranger, I left a stranger]”, Hartung sang with elegant restraint but also haggard bravado to open the suite. By the end. he’d reached the point where Muller’s protagonist is out on the ice with the hurdy-gurdy man, pondering if he should beseech the guy – who’s probably drunk and homeless – to play these songs. Awash in moody nocturnal ambience, Hartung maintained a steely, resolute calm that he only rose from occasionally during the performance, singing and then playing crystalline, resonantly measured lines on alto sax at the end. The cruel surrealism was shattering.
The foreshadowing on the way there made that conclusion all the more powerful. Especially during the opening songs, a subtly sarcastic, anthemic sensibility rose to the surface, pianist Juan Pablo Horcasitas playing Stefan Kozinski’s arrangement with a gracefully deadpan matter-of-factness, joined by Eric Lemmon on viola, Lenae Harris on cello, Lis Rubard on horns and Shelly Bauer on reeds. A handful of suspiciously jaunty waltzes are interspersed among Schubert’s lustrously terse balladry, Hartung and Horcasitas teaming to raise their sardonic edge, letting the subtext and symbolism speak for themselves. Antiwar and antifascist imagery appeared everywhere, Hartung’s precise, cantabile diction especially helpful for those in the audience with limited command of German. In so doing, he gave every reason for reading the traveler’s exhaustion and emotional depletion as an exile in his own land railing against the occupation. The brief, next-to-last song in Muller’s sequence is Mut (Courage): on the surface, it reflects on abandonment, but on a political level it’s a call to arms. So many composers from throughout the ages have had to battle with repressive regimes: it’s time to acknowledge Schubert for his contribution.
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