Review by Vincent Guy
Brian Bannantyne-Scott, bass
Derek Clark, piano
Saturday 3rd February 2024
St Andrew’s & St George’s Church, Edinburgh
‘Winterreise’ was, fittingly, Schubert’s final work. He was checking the text for publishing just before he died.
He died young, but so did so many in those days, when infectious diseases were rife and medicine offered little help for any affliction. In this he joined the ranks of Keats, Byron, Mozart, Mendelssohn, and many other less illustrious names. Müller, who wrote the Winterreise lyrics, died at 32. The word is that Schubert died of syphilis, but I doubt it. Late-stage syphilis, the mortal phase, destroys the brain. Schubert’s creativity, his ability to write this very piece, one of the greatest and most complex in the 19th century repertoire, gives that the lie. And great this piece is.
Melancholy yes, even tragic: a contemplation of lost love, the prospect of death, with the landscape reflecting that in an extended exercise in Pathetic Fallacy. Melancholy is a mood Schubert explored repeatedly, though one or two of his works do go elsewhere. ‘The Trout’, as both song and quintet, takes playful delight in the fish’s escape from the angler. His 8th symphony has been described as Schubert’s Sommerreise, his summer journey.
His productivity was immense. I’ve loved Schubert all my adult life but can still go to a concert or switch on the radio to find I’m hearing a work of his for the first time. Just yesterday something spine-tingling calls me from the next room. Brass and a small chorus make me think, “Oh that’s beautiful, what is it?” Then the Radio 3 announcer: “ Nachtgesang im Walde D.913 by Schubert.”
Written for the tenor voice, how will Winterreise come over sung by Brian in the bass register? Wonderfully, is the answer. Brian Bannantyne-Scott’s voice is not the barnstorming rafter-resonating kind of Chaliapin or even Paul Robeson. There is a lightness, a range not only along the scale but in tone and timbre, with precision and clarity of diction plus a mastery of German pronunciation.
The songs are quite short, complex, varied in style. But there’s an element common to most of the 24 songs: internal contrast. The lover sees or recalls moments of hope and happiness which are then dashed from him as he realises again what he has lost and will never find again. Brian brings out these contrasts with great skill and feeling, his lighter voice reliving the good things, his powerful depth expressing the anger, disappointment, desperation.
The last song, ‘Der Leiermann’, has a different quality: a memorable tune that might become an earworm, with only slight variations on the theme. The word picture of the hurdy-gurdy man, ignored and alone, is mysterious and haunting. Is he a figure of death? The protagonist’s alter-ego? Madness in person?
Pianist Derek Clark gives discreet and masterful accompaniment. The music is so rich one could almost imagine a concert performance of the piano line alone.
Schubert died before he could hear a proper performance of ‘Winterreise’. He only heard himself sing it informally to a small group of friends. He would have been proud and delighted to sit among us this evening.
[First published in The Edinburgh Music Review on 5th February, 2024]