Like Frederick Douglass, Franz Schubert is an example of somebody who is getting recognized more and more these days, so much so that I was compelled to write about him recently in the magazine—a preview of “The Dark Mirror: Zender’s Winterreise,” a radical treatment of Schubert’s song cycle that Mostly Mozart presented last weekend, at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theatre. Like Douglass, Schubert will live among us forever, but the ferocity of the embrace of late has been intense. Young American composers are more politically engagé than they’ve been since the nineteen-sixties and seventies, yet Schubert, the most humbly personal of composers—with a D.I.Y. technique, to boot—is also a powerful model. (Gabriel Kahane, the singer-songwriter/classical composer who personifies the young Brooklyn generation, was in the audience on Saturday night.)
“Winterreise” has been loved and absorbed over the decades as a magnificently simple work: a seventy-minute piece for male voice and piano accompanist that, except for endurance, does not significantly test the technical abilities of either participant. But Schubert, while sometimes simple in his means, is not simple in his effects. If Western classical music has any future value, it is in its unique capacity to condense and translate human experience in a way that is assertive in expression yet elastic in meaning: an art form that is simultaneously clear and complex, one that can embrace the lyrically captivating structural density of a Brahms symphony, the infinitely layered evanescence of a Debussy prelude, or the limpid yet sympathetic violence of a Berg opera.
Classical music may not be “higher” than other musical forms, but it always has expansive possibilities. Like Anthony Tommasini in the Times, I, too, love the Beatles’ song “Eleanor Rigby,” but my feelings about it over the decades have remained the same: it’s a very original tune (rendered in a classy string arrangement by George Martin) with a witty though sensitive lyric about lonely people. But it also has a brittle quality that doesn’t deepen or expand on further hearings. The seeming simplicity of “Winterreise”—a piece that is constantly reinterpreted in performance, not held in sonic amber—is of a richer and more ambiguous type: it grows and changes over the years, just as the mind and body of the person who first encounters it. Its story, of a doomed lover who wanders aimlessly around the town where his former girlfriend lives, is both intimate and epic, literal and metaphorical. It’s a whole world, not just a neighborhood, or a village rectory.
“The Dark Mirror,” which débuted at the Barbican, in London, in 2016, is an unusually daring way to cherish the possibilities of Schubert’s music, so daring that it is much better thought of as a work of our own time than of his. The collective effort is key. You may have noticed, since the turn of the century, how the term “creative team,” deriving from sports and the corporate world, has drifted into classical-music production. Well, “The Dark Mirror” is a team play as well, with the head coach being Hans Zender, the German composer and conductor who took the voice-and-piano original of “Winterreise” and made “Schubert’s ‘Winterreise’,” a “composed interpretation” for tenor and small orchestra that transcends any standard concept of transcription or arrangement. Its liberties are disruptive and vast: Zender pulls, not without violence, Schubert’s tender work of Biedermeier Romanticism though the sound worlds of Mahler, Weill, and his home field of postwar modernist atonality, adding interludes and interjections that lengthen the cycle to almost ninety minutes. But it has a unique power of its own, and in the years since its première, in 1993, it has joined the repertory. As assistant coach is the British director Netia Jones, who has put Zender’s work, usually performed as is, into a new context blending live theatre and filmed projections. And the star athlete is the tenor Ian Bostridge, who has lived with the work for thirty years, has made a commanding recording of it (with the formidable pianist Leif Ove Andsnes), and who now has a way to carry it well into his middle age.
If the original voice-and-piano “Winterreise” was doubles tennis, then “Schubert’s ‘Winterreise’ ”—especially in Jones’s dramatization—is more akin to soccer, or baseball. (Occupying the outfield were the hipster virtuosos of the International Contemporary Ensemble, conducted ably by Baldur Brönnimann and outfitted for the occasion in immaculate evening dress.) But if you need to put a team together, it assumes the existence of a competing force. In business, it is the opposing brand; in sports, the other town’s crew. But whom does the musical “creative team” compete against? The waning attention span of the audience, of course, and the crush of popular culture against which classical music must fight to maintain its presence. On the one hand, “The Dark Mirror” is a brilliantly combustible product of cultural vitality and intellectual ferment. (It’s also irreducibly European: you’d have a very hard time making a show like this out of such “American classics” as “Rhapsody in Blue” or “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” since those twentieth-century masterworks, among the oldest we can access, remain very much under copyright.) But on another level, it is a statement of acute anxiety. Isn’t the original way of encountering “Winterreise,” in all its glory and matchless depth, enough for us? Why all the bells and whistles, constantly competing with Wilhelm Müller’s tragic poetry and Schubert’s searching score? For all its sophistication, “The Dark Mirror” asks much more from its performers than does a straight-up “Winterreise,” but it asks much less from the audience.
“The Dark Mirror” is the third time in eight years that Lincoln Center has put on a dramatized version of “Winterreise,” and perhaps the most successful; previous attempts drew criticism as well as cheers. (I saw one of them, a presentation of the voice-and-piano version in which an onslaught of projections by the artist William Kentridge provided an imaginative but pointlessly distracting backdrop to an eloquent performance by the baritone Matthias Goerne.) The show’s video décor—which included a Piranesian prison, a barren winter landscape, a miniature recital stage, and a white-box studio setting in which giant younger and older Ian Bostridges eerily stared each other down—was varied enough to sustain over the long haul. Bostridge’s costume changes—from Weimar-cabaret tux to Romantic-era winter wear to white tie and tails—mirrored the transformations that Schubert’s music undergoes in Zender’s down-the-rabbit-hole universe. The British tenor’s voice, though sometimes hard to hear in the lower register, has retained its salty-chocolate tang; in a truly radical production it would have been consistently amplified, making this newly larger-than-life protagonist a true competitor with the orchestra.
But perhaps that is yet to come. When Lincoln Center next takes a crack at “Winterreise,” maybe someone like Kahane will make his own reinvention of the piece, guiding it through the sound-worlds of American music theatre and indie rock. Schubert will be waiting patiently, I assure you.