Déjà Review: this review was first published in August 2006 and the recording is still available.
Franz Schubert (1797–1828)
Die Winterreise, D 911 (1827)
Klaus Mertens (baritone)
Tini Mathot (fortepiano)
rec. 2005, Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam
Challenge Classics CC72152 
‘What, another recording of “Winterreise”?’ Klaus Mertens writes at the heading of an essay entitled “About this interpretation” in the booklet. Between the lines one can draw the conclusion that Mertens and Tini Mathot, both of them schooled and mainly active within the baroque tradition, wanted to approach Schubert’s masterpiece from, so to speak, the opposite direction. Most other interpreters have the Classicist and Romantic repertoire as their backbone. Another, more concrete reason was that they tried the songs out on Tini Mathot’s fortepiano, and that definitely makes a difference when it comes to the actual sound: the frail tones from the 1802 Rosenberger instrument (5½ octaves) as opposed to a full-size modern Steinway. A while ago I reviewed a recording of Die schöne Müllerin with the young tenor Jan Kobow, also accompanied by a fortepiano and it was the same experience [review]. Mathot’s instrument is even more brittle and the end-result is narrower dynamics and a more staccato delivery with more air between the notes. In a way it gives a cleaner sound, just as baroque music played on period instruments paradoxically often sounds more “modern” than when played on modern instruments. The drier sounds and the lack of vibrato of the old instruments don’t smooth out the textures. In this respect the present recording functions much the same way as a restorer washing away centuries of dirt from an old painting. Anyone seeing the frescos of the Sistine Chapel before and after knows what I mean.
Intimacy with baroque practice means that Klaus Mertens adopts a voice that is far less vibrato-laden than the average Lieder-singer. Like many baroque-specialists he sports a straight tone that is very attractive but it has a tendency to sound flat. Birgit Nilsson, a singer with a superb sense of pitch, was sometimes castigated for singing under the note. She had no vibrato to mask discrepancies of pitch. In reality she was the most infallible of singers, and Klaus Mertens has the same problem. His is an extremely ‘straight’ voice and when, in slow music, he hits a fairly high note, the impression at first is that it is ever so slightly flat. This can create a feeling of uncertainty, but it is rather a question of adaptation. In reality there are few singers who give a cleaner rendition of this inexhaustibly rich cycle. It is small-scale in the sense that there are no breast-beating histrionics and larger-than-life gestures. Within these confines Mertens presents a reading just as many-faceted and rich as any of the alternatives.
The two artists have also gone to some pains to ponder the tenor of Schubert’s tempo indications. Browsing through my Breitkopf & Härtel edition of the song cycle I find Mässig (Moderate), Langsam (Slow), Nicht zu geschwind (Not too fast), Etwas langsam (Fairly slow) and Sehr langsam (Very slow) time and again. With no metronome-markings these are of course inexact directions and different times interpret them differently. Mertens-Mathot have come to their own conclusions and the result is a bit slower than the accepted modern view, resulting in the longest version in my collection. Going through almost a dozen baritones from the last forty or so years I found Hermann Prey/Wolfgang Sawallisch in 1973 to be the fastest at 67:29 as against Mertens/Methot at 75:35, with Fischer-Dieskau/Brendel in 1986 clocking in also at under 70 minutes. True, Matthias Goerne, Roman Trekel and Olaf Bär are also on the slow side, only a few seconds faster than Mertens. The total timing is one thing; there are also differences for individual numbers. Gute Nacht, the first song of the cycle, sets the seal on the whole performance by being extremely slow, a whole minute longer than Goerne’s. It is also interesting to note that Die Nebensonnen (tr. 23)is marked Nicht zu langsam (Not too slow) and Mertens observes this and sings it with more forward movement than many.
In comparison with any of Fischer-Dieskau’s many recordings Mertens is less detailed which doesn’t mean that he is inexpressive. Instead he trusts Schubert’s expressiveness and this pays dividends in the shape of a more unforced melodic flow and obedience to Schubert’s dynamic markings. He sings very often with a delicious half-voice, used with nice discrimination, carefully grading the volume of sound. He can also be darkly intense, as in Rückblick (tr. 8).
Once or twice an accent on a singular syllable can feel too strong, obtruding from the surroundings like a sore thumb. In Gute Nacht (tr. 1) in the second stanza, on the words ‘muss selbst den Weg mir weisen’selbst is unduly accentuated, but this is very much an exception. I mention it only because the rest is so well-balanced. I had reason to make the same comment on his recent disc with Telemann songs (review), where I also mentioned his elegant handling of trills and grace notes. Some of the songs are done very freely – the well-known Der Lindenbaum (tr. 5) pensively, almost hesitant. The song feels newly discovered and makes a fascinating alternative. Another favourite, Frühlingstraum (tr. 11) is given a more vernal lighter aura than usual, not least through the brittle birdsong-like quality of the prelude. Mathot’s accompaniment throughout is at one with the singing. The transparency of the fortepiano highlights the inventiveness of the piano writing, Letzte Hoffnung (tr. 16) standing out as one of Schubert’s most wilful creations.
As so often it is not possible, in as rich and competitive a field as Winterreise, to pick a clear winner. Fischer-Dieskau/Moore (DG) from the early 1970s has always had an honoured place on my shelves and so has Olaf Bär/Geoffrey Parsons, but there is such a plethora of good versions. It is a privilege to be able to pick and choose the version that feels most in tune with the mood of the moment. Mertens/Mathot now join that select group of versions that I want easily available. Produced by Tini Mathot’s husband, Ton Koopman, who has collaborated with Klaus Mertens on innumerable occasions, everything is on the highest possible level. The liner notes are in three languages, including detailed commentaries on each individual song by Mertens and of course the sung texts and translations.
To sum up: a fresh, personable and individual reading that shows these well-known songs in part in a new light.
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