A WINTER’S JOURNEY
Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre
Thursday July 14, 2022
This latest Musica Viva touring program could have been more than unappealing. Well, it proved to be so for many patrons who stayed away in droves. Or did they? Hard to tell in Brisbane’s Concert Hall, which is much more capacious than the organization’s usual haunt in the Griffith University Conservatorium of Music. Did somebody in administration think that the northern capital’s music-lovers would come out in numbers to enjoy Schubert’s gloomy song-cycle? Was there a book running on the popular appeal of a young English tenor? Or did some off-site official bank on public curiosity about a wedding between German Romanticism and the paintings of Fred Williams?
As far as I can tell, Brisbane is the only city that has been upgraded in potential capacity this way; every other Winterreise is being performed in the usual spaces. Moving from a hall with a maximum capacity of 750 to one that holds 1600 is one of the more striking instances I know of great expectations. I didn’t attempt to count on Thursday evening – bad-mannered and depressing at the same time – but the place would have been about a third full. I couldn’t see any patrons in the upper reaches of the Concert Hall and in the stalls we were well spread out; even then, with not much occupation at the fringes.
Possibly it’s one thing to mount Winterreise in Melbourne where self-consciousness is unremarkable; or in Sydney, a town where awareness of self is strangely attractive in a city so inured to promotion of personality from the womb on; or in Adelaide and Perth in whose cultural reaches individual self-love is abnegated in favour of Church and State respectively. Brisbane, as they say, is different: a smaller pool for clientele, a chamber music audience that is dutiful but elderly, a set of patrons who take more pleasure in short bursts than in sustained essays (we were warned in a pre-recital voice-over that the 24 songs should not be interrupted by applause, just in case any of us went ape over Der Lindenbaum or Fruhlingstraum).
Whatever the local peculiarities are, we heard a fine performance from Clayton and his almost-faultless accompanist Golla. While the tenor prowled the stage and Golla sat and played, stately at the pianoforte, paintings by Fred Williams were projected on screens behind the performers, presumably to give an Australian wanderer’s perspective on trolling through the countryside, albeit reflecting a happier, more positive personality than that of Muller’s rejected lover, as well as a series of landscapes some centuries and 10,000 miles away from the imaginary originals. I think most of us would be receptive of Williams’ visions of this country, even without Patrick McCaughey telling us what and how to think about them. But marrying them with the cycle’s aesthetic content proved challenging, not least because Muller’s poems are often very physically suggestive, reliant on solid objects in the world as well as on mood and psychological deviation.
Lindy Hume directed the 70-minute-long spectacle; not able to do much with Golla, she put Clayton to work by using the stage’s width and sending him roaming around the backdrop screens. But she didn’t descend to nonsensical mimicry as was carried out by Simon Keenlyside when he participated in a staged Winterreise for the 2004 Melbourne International Arts Festival where one of the low points was having the baritone pose as a lime tree. Mind you, at one point Clayton came close, settling in for a sleep under the piano (possibly during Das Wirtshaus, although that’s unlikely as the poet finds no rest there; more likely it was Rast). But the emphasis was mainly on the tenor’s vocal powers of suggestion, rather than physical flourishes. Still, one in particular impressed when Clayton simulated quickly pulling a curtain across the backdrop as a placid Williams painting changed into a wild vertical expressionist panel-triptych, perhaps for Der sturmische Morgen.
Sorry for the overuse of ‘probably’, ‘possibly’, etc., but my memory is becoming unreliable as the decades creep past. In normal conditions, you can see enough in a venue to scratch out some notes for later reference; when the lights go out for a visual presentation like this one, you’ve got little-to-no hope of recording anything. Nor are you helped when the relevant program-booklet pages are black with white print – which is illegible anyway under these conditions. So you’re left to fall back on memory alone which, even at one day’s distance, is chancy. Nonetheless, video designer David Bergman kept his background projection movements quiet in general, paintings melding into each other with considerable skill; to my shame, I recognized only three of them and one was the early Balwyn landscape of 1946, although many of the other 18 (from across the following 30 years) were familiar in style, if not content.
So I’ve got few comments on individual songs. Clayton and Golla made a firm opening with a steady Gute Nacht that took a few tempo liberties, maintaining its pulse and balancing between a trudge and a march. At this early stage, you could appreciate the tenor’s clean production and the pianist’s unobtrusive determination that didn’t labour the details. Even more impressive, Die Post proved to be memorable for Clayton’s communication of self-exasperation; something I’ve not seen before as most singers head for jaunty exhilaration, even though the stanza-concluding Mein Herz?/! is best read as impatience at approaching and inevitable disappointment – as in this Clayton vision.
During the familiar Der Lindenbaum, we witnessed some instances of this singer’s unexpected moves, including an almost-not-there soft volume at Hier findest du deine Ruh’!, as well as an avoidance of bluster in the cold wind stanza’s modulation. Across the 24 lieder, Clayton showed an impressive control in the larger-framed works like the urgent Ruckblick, the subterranean menace that permeates Im Dorfe, and the hope-destructive repeated notes that eventually consume all in Der Wegweiser.
I get impatient with writers who manage to find some sort of uplift in Der Leiermann, the cycle’s concluding song. No matter which way you turn, neither poet nor composer offers redemption or a light breaking through: it’s despair contemplating itself in the bleakest of landscapes. And that’s exactly what I took from Clayton and Golla’s reading where their voice/piano alternation made a powerful conclusion to this atmospherically consistent interpretation. It obviously impressed this audience which greeted the fade-to-black with an initial tentativeness that swelled rapidly into infectious enthusiasm.
Finally, the conceptual elephant: what, if anything, do the paintings contribute? Eye candy is the kindest I can think of: they don’t challenge much, and even those that branch away from the trademark straight tree-trunks like the two Sherbrooke forest works from 1961 or dabs of scrub in the You Yangs landscape still border on the figurative, like one of the two Mount Kosciusko studies. Whatever conceptualizing lay behind super-imposing these backdrops, there was no intention of illustrating or visually complementing the lieder; rather, the intention appears to have been to present us with a familiar environment in which to site the cycle. For me, this didn’t work, music and paintings occupying utterly different strata and never the twain did meet – well, very rarely.
An additional chauvinism-reinforcing observance came in the form of 24 poems (of sorts) by Judith Nangala Crispin, Musica Viva Australia’s Artist in Residence, printed in the program booklet. These stanzas depict Williams wandering around the Kosciuszko (take your pick) landscape pursuing a white emu, presumably to paint rather than to eat. You assume that the questing, determined artist stands in for Muller’s pseudo-Werther, while the animal represents the jilting lover. Imagery and landscape details are piled on thick to give us a new Winterreise, one that has nothing in common with the original. But I assume that was the whole point: to escape the European cliche/trope and depict your typical Australian artist, ploughing through the mulga in search of a bunyip substitute. It’s all an interesting adjunct but such a juxtaposition across time and space stretches my limited imagination to breaking point.
You could, easily enough, shut your eyes and just listen to the Clayton/Golla Experience – which I did for a time, starting at Der greise Kopf. And thereby relished – undistracted – the duo’s stellar combination of restraint and vehemence. For my part, the score itself works against any ethnic transubstantiations or contemporary parallel-drawing. It’s a puzzlement: go along and see/hear for yourself.