wed 17/07/2024

Winterreise, Clayton, Aurora Orchestra, Collon, QEH review - new maps for the great journey | reviews, news & interviews

Winterreise, Clayton, Aurora Orchestra, Collon, QEH review - new maps for the great journey

Winterreise, Clayton, Aurora Orchestra, Collon, QEH review - new maps for the great journey

A mighty tenor surmounts obstacles on stage and in score

Hello and good night: Allan Clayton, Aurora Orchestraall images ©Julian Guidera

Like Hamlet or Fidelio, Schubert’s Winterreise can withstand and overcome (almost) any kind of re-imagining. In the case of Hans Zender’s 1993 “composed interpretation” of the work for chamber orchestra – and sundry sound effects – the new model has itself become a near-canonical classic. 

Allan Clayton first brought his large, lustrous but vulnerable and involving tenor to the re-orchestrated song cycle in 2015. At the Queen Elizabeth Hall last night, Jane Mitchell’s production (with Clayton billed as co-director) confirmed that Zender’s music, and the panoply of stage effects that partner it, can often cast fresh, eerie light on the solitary wanderer’s winter journey through grief and despair. Nicholas Collon conducted the Aurora Orchestra as they wove Zender’s ear-bending tapestry of sound and rhythm around the vocal lines. 

Clayton (pictured below), however, remains the beating heart – and lamenting voice – of the whole show. Rock-solid, yet glinting with a hundred separate facets of feeling, his voice carries us through even those numbers where music or stagecraft lose their way. A Clayton-quality singer here means that orthodox Schubertians should not mourn the absence of a great pianist partner (a Moore, Drake or Huber) too much. Without one, all bets might be off. With its prominent wheezy melodicas, scurrying, snapping percussion, insolent brass and woods, not to mention near-parodic bursts of swooning strings, Zender’s eclectic orchestration may nod to Mahler, Berg and other 20th century giants. But the overall timbre has a powerful Weimar-cabaret, Kurt Weill-ish colour. The sound-world often pivots, ingeniously but uneasily, between homage and pastiche. Snarling woods, snorting brass or stuttering rhythms can open up an emotional gap between us and the suffering, yearning traveller. So as Clayton invites us to share and sympathise in his solitary trek, the music frames and estranges it. We are both drawn into and pushed out of his plight: an ambiguous spot for the listener that will excite some and disturb others. 

Meanwhile, Mitchell’s stage geography gives the anguished vocalist plenty of hard work to do. Clayton begins, in “Gute Nacht”, on a raised platform at the rear, descending among the players for later numbers, lying (or crawling) on the floor, even striding through the auditorium. The orchestra becomes the villagers who have spurned him, just as his beloved has; the players’ physical movements, as much as the sounds they make, entrench his isolation. 

In the first number, faint, ragged sounds emerge from percussion as if at the beginning of the world. Zender, and Collon, capture a sense of song always faltering at the brink of silence that continues right up to “Der Leiermann”. In several numbers, Clayton speaks or intones verses, Sprechstimme fashion, until the full voice returns in all its tormented glory. We can never take this music, wrenched from the edge of annihilation, for granted. 

Yet this minimalist aesthetic sits alongside some busy stagecraft that engages the ear and eye, but not always the mind. “The Weathervane” gives us a glimpse of the swinging lights, wind effects and storm motifs that periodically send Clayton back into the gusty shores of Peter Grimes (or even Der fliegende Holländer). The snowstorms of “Erstarrung” (and later numbers) never quite match the terrifying chill in the singer’s voice, while the projected images of “Der Lindenbaum” add little to the rippling grace of his delivery. 

Sometimes this visual and aural business illuminates; sometimes it annoys. Always, however, Clayton supplies a credible interpretation and in songs such as “Wasserflut” spans a vast arc of feeling from husky brokenness to sonorous, full-throated defiance. Clayton also fashions some piquant near-comic or self-mocking moments: Samuel Beckett loved Winterreise, and the lovelorn voyager does have his absurdist-tramp side. Zender’s Weimar-era tonalities gives a music-hall drollery to numbers such as “Aus dem Flusse”, but full Romantic agony is restored in “Rest”, with Clayton slumped on the ground surrounded by the sinister strumming of a string quartet (pictured above). Later, in “Einsamkeit”, he wanders all around the hall with his lantern: no repose for the forsaken.

If anything this air of restless movement, punctuated by sudden flurries of musical and visual activity, only increases during the second dozen of Schubert’s songs. Here the memory of the absent beloved fades and the traveller slips into a more thoroughly existential dark night of the soul. In the credit column, the bustling action brings a rich operatic dimension to the cycle, as Clayton’s performance interacts not just with sets and lighting but the Aurora players who take on the character of the people, or other creatures, the wayfarer sees or imagines (in “Die Krähe”, they even wear crow masks). 

Yet the fidgety shifts from one scenario, one style to another – an agitation written into Zender’s score but amplified by Mitchell’s direction – create something of a mismatch between soloist and stage. With Clayton, we hear a singer nobly trying to build a cogent psychological novel of abandonment, solitude, and negotiation with despair. Around him, however, unfolds a series of short-winded sketches in which moods and tones swing as drunkenly, and suddenly, as those as storm-battered lights. That rift still leaves plenty to admire, and enjoy. In “Die Post” (pictured above), Clayton becomes a slurring, strutting Elvis impersonator from some pub karaoke night. “Letzte Hoffnung” runs the vocal gamut from spoken misery – as the traveller tears up the last “leaf” of the poem he reads – to the full-spectrum power of the closing stanzas. “Der Wegweiser” turns into a miniature farewell symphony, as the instrumentalists depart from the shunned singer in their midst to form separate ensembles, while the village-band funeral chorale of “Das Wirtshaus” proves how atmospherically effective Zender’s magpie idioms can be. Despite the yellow balloons that, a little distractingly, stand in for the mock suns of “Die Nebensonnen”, Clayton touches a properly tragic ardour and sorrow there. 

As for “Der Leiermann”, the cracked hurdy-gurdy that grinds out both utter desolation and faint hope becomes first an uncanny duet of viola and saxophone, then a pile-up of discordant woodwinds flanked by parping brass. Too much musical editorialising, maybe: we surely need a more nuanced, less cacophonous farewell. Clayton, though, pierces through the hyper-active stagecraft to lead us firmly, warmly to his journey’s end. I left for my journey happy to have experienced some of Zender’s musical diversions, glad to have enjoyed Collon and the Aurora band as agile guides along that route – but grateful above all to follow an outstanding dramatic tenor’s footsteps through the snow.

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