Composer/conductor Hans Zender, who died last October (2019), is better known for his “composed re-composition” of Schubert’s Winterreise than for any of his other work. That’s not to sell those other “original” compositions short, or his work as a conductor (a fine Mahler Ninth and excellent Schubert First, among them). It’s simply a credit to how spectacularly well-made his orchestral reworking of the Schubert classic is. Sure, there always will be those who find the idea of futzing with an original masterpiece objectionable. And in many cases where a mediocrity latches onto a work of genius, the critics have a point. Not here.
Zender does not paint a mustache on the Mona Lisa. (Not that “L.H.O.O.Q.” isn’t art, but it’s artistic commentary, an objet trouvé, not the thing itself.) Nor does Zender squeeze the Winterreise to bring out one particular aspect at the expense of its many others. Zender created an artwork with another artwork. He made a great film of a great book; he dramatized and further sonified the original. The result is a compelling, goose-bump inducing retelling of the song cycle, allegorized by a small and diverse ensemble, spoken, sung, and whispered. Sound effects abound. When he runs the risk of overstating something already obvious, the innovative aural experience alone makes up for it.
There are three recordings out there, none of which is bad. But none are as good as this, the first one, which was initially released on RCA and after years of being out of print has finally been re-issued on the Ensemble Modern’s own new label. Ensemble Modern excels at visceral story-telling. Under Zender’s direction–recorded a year after the same lot of artists performed the premiere–they shape all the sounds, beguiling and disturbing, with laser-etched precision and zero self-consciousness. And then there is tenor Hans-Peter Blochwitz: He throws himself into the more unhinged aspects of this rendition, but he also sings with uncommon exactitude, clarity, and artless beauty in the lyrical passages. He’s not only highly adequate, as I had remembered, but on re-hearing he is very impressive indeed! Prégardien Sr., on the rival Kairos recording, has more noblesse in his voice, but that’s not needed here. That, along with the great, detailed yet atmospheric sound seals the deal: The original remains the reference.
That the release of this disc coincides closely with Zender’s death is tragic, but also makes for a very fitting document to celebrate his genius. If you search the ClassicsToday.com archive, we have also reviewed Christoph Prégardien’s very fine recording with Cambreling leading the slightly joyless, minimally out-of-focus Klangforum Wien, which remains a solid choice ahead of his son Julian’s overly eager recording on Alpha.