Franz Schubert’s great song cycle for voice and piano Winterreise (Winter Journey) D. 911 is a setting of twenty poems by the German poet Johann Ludwig Wilhelm Müller (1794-1827) Composed in two parts, each containing twelve songs, the first part was written in February 1827 and the second in October 1827. This song cycle came at the end of his life when he was in a very low state, both physically and mentally, and represents some of the most profound music that Schubert wrote.
With Winterreise, Schubert raised the importance of the pianist to a role equal to that of the singer so perhaps it is not surprising that Franz Liszt chose to transcribe some of them for solo piano alone.
A new release from Genuin Classics www.genuin.de brings together a number of Liszt’s transcriptions of songs by Schubert, Mendelssohn and Chopin that includes Winterreise. They are performed by Els Biesemans on an 1835 Aloys Biber fortepiano.
Els Biesemans www.elsbiesemans.be was born in Antwerp and has performed on a number of different keyboard instruments, the clavichord, fortepiano, modern concert grand piano, harpsichord, and organ in most European countries, Japan, Canada and the US.
She received a Master’s degree in music performance majoring in piano, organ and chamber music at the Lemmens Institute in Leuven, Belgium. She subsequently completed advanced studies in fortepiano with Jesper Christensen and organ with Andrea Marcon and Wolfgang Zerer at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in Basel, Switzerland. She has won prizes at well-known international competitions in Vilnius, Tokyo, Prague, Paris, and Montreal. In August 2012 she took First Prize in the international Arp-Schnitger Competition.
She has symphonic organ repertoire by Belgian and French composers as well as the complete works for organ by Maurice Duruflé on the Animato and Et‘cetera labels. Her recording on fortepiano entitled ‘The Year’ featuring works by Fanny Hensel-Mendelssohn has been released on the Genuin label. Els Biesemans has appeared in concert as a soloist with various chamber orchestras and performed the complete works for organ by Johann Sebastian Bach in nineteen recitals. Since 2010 she has performed at, and has also been the Artistic Director of, the recital series at the Reformed Church in Zürich-Wiedikon. In addition to pursuing a career as a solo artist, she also gives master classes and often serves on the jury of international music competitions.
Between 1837 and 1838, Liszt transcribed a cycle of twelve songs by Schubert as his 12 Lieder von Schubert, S558. Of these Els Biesemans gives us No. 2. Auf dem Wasser zu singen (Schubert’s D.774). She produces a fine singing tone, her instrument providing much of Schubert’s natural melodic, vocal line. The Aloys Biber fortepiano evokes an intimate atmosphere as does the recording.
The real test of transcription comes with Schubert’s sublime Winterreise, D. 911 where Liszt chose twelve of the songs as his 12 Lieder aus Fr. Schubert’s Winterresise, S561. Liszt did not choose to arrange these songs in the order that they appear in Schubert’s cycle.
A chill note is brought to No. 1. Gute Nacht (Good Night), this pianist finding much delicacy and feeling. Of course one does miss the full emotional pull of the human voice, but within the strictures of these transcriptions Els Biesemans finds much subtle emotion. No. 2. Die Nebensonnen (The Weathervane) is particularly fine, with much pathos as the lover rejects the sun and decides he would be happier in darkness. Here the importance of Schubert’s original piano part is shown in how effective this transcription is, this fortepianist gradually drawing greater emotion.
No. 3. Mut! (Courage) brings more optimistic vein, though in this transcription and performance we can perhaps hear Schubert’s reticence. No. 4. Die Post (The Post) has a lovely rhythmic pulse with the right hand taking the singing line. This artist draws much variety of mood from this fine old instrument.
No. 5. Erstarrung (Frozen Stiff) is beautifully played, overcoming Liszt’s added melodrama. As the piece is developed there is much poetry and sensibility as well as some fine fluid passages. There is a lovely withdrawn atmosphere to No. 6. Wasserflut (Flood) with Biesemans drawing much feeling, finely phrased and paced.
No. 7. Der Lindenbaum (The Linden Tree) has an opening that promises a happier turn but as the poet turns away from the solace and peace offered by the Linden Tree a chill is found with Biesemans holding the structure together very finely, developing some extremely fine passages. The tragic, lonely figure of The Hurdy-Gurdy Man, No. 8. Der Leiermann, is heard through the droning sound of the hurdy-gurdy as this pianist picks out the subtle little tunes over the repeated drone, finding so much of Schubert’s tragedy.
With No. 9. Täuschung (Deception/Delusion) this fortepianist brings out the distant, unattainable happiness of the dance theme, perhaps Schubert looking at his own social whirl from outside. No. 10. Liszt highlights the strange, subtle mood changes of Das Wirtshaus (The Inn) as does Biesemans to fine effect with some wonderfully fluent playing.
There is terrific phrasing and rhythmic changes in the brief and stormy No. 11. Der stürmische Morgen (The Stormy Morning) before No. 12. Im Dorfe (In the Village) where Els Biesemans finds all the fleeting moods in this very effective transcription, with some really fiery playing towards the coda.
This is a fascinating look at Schubert’s great song cycle through the eyes and ears of Liszt in a very fine performance indeed.
In 1840 Liszt turned his attention to Mendelssohn with his Seven Lieder from Mendelssohn, (Op, 19a, 34, 47), S547. These songs are well chosen by Liszt with
Frühlingslied (Spring Song) (from Op. 47, No. 3) having many fine touches. Els Biesemans provides some very fine, fluent playing, full of detail, fluidity and transparency, this instrument proving to be a fine vehicle for this repertoire with some beautifully delicate phrases.
Reiselied (Travel Song) (from Op. 34, No. 6) is brilliantly realised by this pianist with some very fine moments, beautifully controlled and with a subtle coda. Suleika (from Op. 34, No. 4) has a lovely flow with a certain wistfulness well caught here and a wonderfully wrought coda.
Auf Flügeln des Gesanges (On Wings of Song) (from Op. 34, No. 2) is possibly the best known song here and works exceptionally well for solo piano with this fortepianist bringing a lovely gentle flow as well as a subtle nostalgia. The lively Neue Liebe (New Love) (from Op. 19a, No. 4) receives a very fine performance, full of life and sparkle, Els Biesemans extracting many fine textures and colours from her instrument as well as some tremendous articulation.
We move forward to 1847–60 for Liszt’s transcription of Chopin songs, his Six Chants polonaise of Frédéric Chopin, Op. 74, S.480. Els Biesemans brings a lovely rippling opening to No. 1. Mädchens Wünsch (Życzenie – The Wish) with more fine fluent playing, so well phrased and paced. This is a lovely transcription.
The gentle No. 2. Frühling (Wiosna, Spring) is another example of how finely this pianist reveals the gentle subtleties of a piece. No. 3. Das Ringlein (No. 14: Pierścień – The Ring) brings all of Chopin’s lovely rhythms revealing this to be a transcription that works exceptionally well.
There are some terrific flourishes in No. 4. Bacchanal (Hulanka, Merrymaking) full of panache before No. 5. Mein Freuden (Moja pieszczotka, My Darling) – Nocturne a most beautiful piece, very Chopinesque even, with Liszt’s decorations and added dramatic turns finely revealed here. Finally we have Die Heimkehr (Narzeczony, Homecoming) with this pianist whipping up quite a Lisztian storm.
Finally Els Biesemans gives us Liszt’s own Liebesträume, S541: No. 3. Nocturne in A-Flat Major ‘O lieb’ so lang du lieben kannst’ pure Lisztian beauty, with a fine rubato, rising to a lovely climax, with this pianist delivering a lovely clarity and texture.
The recording is extremely good and Els Biesemans provides the excellent booklet notes on the music and the instrument. There are also the original song texts given in German.