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Review of Hans Zender’s reimagining of Schubert song cycle Winterreise by Aurora Orchestra and tenor Allan Clayton at Saffron Hall

In 1993, the German composer Hans Zender created what he called a “composed interpretation” of Schubert’s famous song cycle Winterreise.

On Saturday (March 9), the Saffron Hall audience rose to their feet as one to applaud a performance of this still controversial work, given by the Aurora Orchestra and tenor Allan Clayton ahead of their appearance at London’s Southbank Centre later in the month.

Winterreise (Winter Journey) is considered by many to be the pinnacle of the great German Lieder legacy – deeply moving in its imagery and sound world, written when Schubert knew his end was near. Its 24 songs for tenor and piano are practically sacrosanct among traditional music lovers.

Zender’s reimagining, on the other hand, involves mouth organs, accordion, saxophone and wind machines among its 25-piece band, and shouting, sprechstimme (words half-spoken, half sung) and a megaphone on the part of the singer. What can he have been thinking of?

First off, the management team at Saffron Hall deserve thanks and praise for having the vision and the nerve to bring us something which so many Schubert lovers might have hated, and which could have put many others off Schubert for life. On the contrary, the hall was well filled and one member of the audience (who did not know the piece at all) told me: “It was a privilege to sit and hear that.”

Kudos also to the ever-resourceful Aurora Orchestra, prepared as they were to move around the auditorium, to play from memory, to play wearing crow masks (not easy if you play the oboe, for example) and to sprinkle snow on the protagonist, when they could have been making easy money chugging through the Four Seasons one more time (pace, Vivaldi lovers).

Acclaimed tenor Allan Clayton joined forces with the Aurora Orchestra to perform Schubert’s monumental song cycle Winterreise at Saffron Hall on Saturday
Acclaimed tenor Allan Clayton joined forces with the Aurora Orchestra to perform Schubert’s monumental song cycle Winterreise at Saffron Hall on Saturday

And unqualified praise for Allan Clayton, who took only moments to justify his reputation as one of the greatest tenors of his generation. Not only did he sing 73 verses, from memory, of faultless German, but he did so while creeping, stumbling, crouching, crawling, sitting, lying, dancing (to a klezmer number) and even at one point giving a convincing Elvis impression. None of this detracted for a moment from his ability to keep the audience in his gaze and put across every emotional detail of the tragic story which was unfolding.

Those who already knew the story (rejected by his beloved’s family in favour of a richer suitor, a young man wanders through an icy landscape, gradually losing his grip on reality) must have been wondering what Zender’s rewrite would add to the original poems.

The answer became clear from the outset, when the unmistakable sound of footsteps in the snow was conjured out of the silence by the percussionists. Many more telling sound effects punctuated the evening, as the skilful orchestration evoked not only the raw and fluctuating emotions of the protagonist, but also the sounds of barking dogs, a posthorn, a snowstorm and, eventually, the wheezing music of the hurdy-gurdy man standing alone in the village square – one of the most arresting moments in the history of song. A handful of carefully picked instruments was able to provide a haunting slow fade which no piano could emulate.

Hearing a radical revision of a treasured favourite takes nothing away from the original; this production of Zender’s Winterreise proved that it only helps us to reassess and re-evaluate what we thought we knew, and to hear it with fresh ears. When that process is applied to such a powerful work as Schubert’s Winter Journey, the results are more than justified.

Richard Allaway

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