Peter Mattei’s Stunning “Winterreise”

BIS-2444 - cover

WP 2019 - 2SCHUBERT: Winterreise / Peter Mattei, bar; Lars David Nilsson, pno / Bis SACD-2444

Swedish baritone Peter Mattei, one of the greatest vocalists in his class, has been singing professionally since 1990. I mention that not only because I only became aware of him when he started singing at the Metropolitan Opera in 2002, some 12 years into his career, but also because it is now 29 years since that debut and the voice has remained as fresh, bright, and steady as it was lo those many years ago. Seriously, he must take very good care of his voice when you consider that even such younger star singers as Anna Netrebko, Jonas Kaufmann and Bryan Hymel have all run into serious vocal difficulties in a much shorter span of time.

But as much as I’ve loved his voice, I never thought of Mattei as a lieder interpreter in the same way I would Thomas Hampson, who has led a dual career as opera star and song interpreter from the beginning of his career, thus I approached this Winterreise with some concern that he wouldn’t be able to deliver the subtlety and angst that these difficult songs call for.

I shouldn’t have worried. Even in the very first song, “Gute nacht,” he shapes and molds his voice with shadings and accents that I didn’t suspect that he had in his arsenal. Indeed, the way he interprets this song reminded me of Peter Pears’ classic recording with Benjamin Britten, which most lieder singers adore and general voice-lovers detest (Pears had an odd timbre that was dry and occasionally sounded constricted on top). Moreover, Mattei digs into the bitter angst of “Die Wetterfahne” and “Gefor’ne Tränen” as if he had been singing this cycle all his life. As the cycle progresses, my sole complaint was that I didn’t think he was soft enough and didn’t float his tone in “Der Lindenbaum,” though he does so in “Wasserflut” and “Die Krähe.” In “Wasserflut,” I noted one change in his voice over the years: he now has a richer low range than he did a decade ago. Mattei is really deep into the character in “Auf dem flusse,” in a way that’s almost scary. Indeed, as the cycle continues, one notes that Mattei has taken the protagonist from a point of just being bitterly disappointed at being rejected in love to complete emotional instability, as it should be. Nowhere is this more evident than in “Frühlingstraum.” In the lyrical sections of the song, Mattei makes the character sound as if he is still under control, but in the fast sections he explodes in rage, sounding out of control and almost demented.

Another thing I liked about this performance was its good pace. At 69:07, it is easily eight to ten minutes faster than anyone else’s Winterreise, yet it doesn’t feel rushed at all. Moreover, unlike some other recordings of this cycle (but not the Pears), there are no real let-downs in interpretation. Every song has its own feel, with an almost-3-D presentation of the protagonist as if it were he himself singing for you and not a Professional Singer, if you know what I mean.

Pianist Lars David Nilsson is an excellent accompanist if not quite on the psychic wavelength that Benjamin Britten was with Peter Pears—but that was one of the most unique singer-accompanist relationships of the 20th century, and we are unlikely to hear that kind of communicative power from a pianist in this cycle ever again. And yet, the Mattei-Nilsson duo achieves something that not even Pears-Britten did, and that is to reveal the underlying structure of the cycle in addition to its emotional progress. In their hands, the songs sound much more closely knit than in anyone else’s recording, and that includes some real heavyweight competition. Indeed, by the time one reaches “Mut!,” you realize that this is possibly the greatest recording of this song cycle ever made—certainly better than those of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (I’ve heard two of them, and his interpretation differed very little in both), which to be honest I found terribly disappointing—and this is due to both the intense interpretation and the sense of structure than emerges. And Mattei has exactly the right tone of voice and pace for “Der Leiermann,” the cycle’s concluding song, which is damned difficult to pull off well.

Partisans of others’ recordings may hate me for saying this, but this is the greatest performance of Winterreise of all those I have heard. No question in my mind about it; it has everything. No matter how many other recordings you already own (I have four), you need to make room for this on your CD shelf.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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