Aug 29, 2013

The Continuing Mutilation of Schubert's "Der Leiermann"

In November 1999 Naxos released a recording of Schubert's "Winterreise" D. 911, performed by baritone Roman Trekel and pianist Ulrich Eisenlohr. This CD, which was the first volume of Naxos's "Deutsche Schubert-Lied-Edition" series, generally received positive reviews. The critics deservedly praised Trekel's singing and only had nice things to say about Eisenlohr's playing. The only person known to me, who – contrary to all the supposedly expert critics – realized that something was wrong with this recording and publicly spoke out about it, was retired college professor of Criminal Justice and avid Fischer-Dieskau aficionado Dr. Celia A. Sgroi, who on 19 January 2000 posted the following on the "Lieder, Melodies, Art Songs in any language" mailing list, maintained by the University of Houston Listserv:
The pianist, Ulrich Eisenlohr, who delivers competent, and sometimes quite imaginative, playing throughout the cycle, goes completely off the rails in "Der Leiermann." His hurdy-gurdy is more loudly and jarring discordant than any I have ever heard. It gives the song a strangely "modern" sound that is interesting for a moment, but it palls very quickly and the disadvantages are enormous: the listener ends up completely distracted from the singing, and the dischords in the piano make it sound as if the singer is off-pitch. If this is the judgment of one of the initiators of this complete Schubert edition, Naxos may be in considerable trouble. At any rate, I feel sorry for Trekel, who is singing his heart out at that point and all in vain.
Eisenlohr's interpretation of the song "Der Leiermann" is very strange indeed. He apparently thought to be the first pianist who realized how Schubert really meant the piano accompaniment of this song to be performed. Eisenlohr not only plays the short appoggiatura in the left hand as an acciaccatura together with the principal note (he plays the dissonant note a tick earlier than the half notes only in the first two bars), he is also convinced that Schubert wanted the dissonant note to be repeated on the beat of every bass chord throughout the whole song in the way of a "simile" or "segue". The first two chords in Schubert's score have an e# as appoggiatura, but the following ones have none. There is no "simile" or "segue" written in the score:

The beginning of Schubert's "Der Leyermann" in the autograph b minor version.

The result of Eisenlohr's bizarre idea is fatal. At the beginning of each measure, all the way through the song, we now hear a dissonant chord in the bass which reaches a peak of tasteless cruelty at that moment where we realize that for the first time ever Schubert's song cycle now ends on a dissonant chord. In a personal e-mail, sent to me on 1 May 2000 via Roman Trekel, Ulrich Eisenlohr defended his interpretation as follows:
As you might perhaps know, the "Leier" is always played with bordun-chords. If some of these bordun-strings are not welltuned,-which is quite likely in winter-time and outdoors,-they will sound a little bit "dirty" ; that is why I play the appogiatura on the beat. There is nothing less meant by Schubert than a correct appogiatura, done by a well-aducated musician. Can we presume that the Leiermann will stop his playing after 2 bars to tune his bordun-strings again? Probably not: he will continue as he has begun: "dreht, und seine Leier steht ihm nimmer still." So, why change the playing of the left hand in the third bar? It is just meant like "simile" or "segue", which is a familiar instruction in classical and romantic music, often not even written by the composers, because they trusted in intelligent intepretors who would know how to read and understand the music. Although I don't think that my kind of playing distracts the listener from the voice - even if it did: would it not be the pendant to the fact, that the singer is distracted from himself, his sorrous and pains, by the playing of the Leiermann? Hope I could calm you just a little bit with these explanations. Kind regards, Ulrich Eisenlohr
Eisenlohr firmly rejected the suggestion that by his curious interpretation he may have branded his illustrious predecessors as unintelligent musicians who for over 100 years have been unable to really understand Schubert's score. Some of these pianists, who (owing to obvious lack of musical intelligence) failed to grasp the whole "never standing still hurdy gurdy" idea, are Gerald Moore:

Sviatoslav Richter:

Alfred Brendel:

Murray Perahia:

and Daniel Barenboim:

Making musical pieces "sound like they have never sounded before" is one of the most effective artistic gimmicks in the current classical music business. In their evaluation of the quality of recordings, some critics nowadays seem to follow a simple rule: "If I've never heard it played like this before, it must be brilliant!" It seems that the commercial success of some flawed "historically informed" performances is mainly based on this crazy paradigm and the quite obvious fact that most positive reviews of CDs in glossy music magazines are paid for by the recording industry. A perfect recent example is René Jacobs's recording of Mozart's Symphony No. 38 "Prague" which was released in 2007 by Harmonia Mundi. The blurb of this recording promises a revelatory listening experience: "The guiding principle of this interpretation is clarity of texture [...] It forsakes the 19th-century symphonic tradition for a quite different style of rhetoric." Such an announcement cannot bode well. And accordingly Jacobs forsakes what he considers "the 19th-century symphonic tradition" by ruthlessly botching the long appoggiaturas in bars 17-28 of the symphony's slow introduction.

Bars 16-19 of the strings in the slow introduction of Mozart's symphony K. 504

Instead of having them played as regular 1/32s (as intended by Mozart), Jacobs turns them into short grace notes, because he obviously considers himself more knowledgable in matters of 18th-century performance practice than the composer himself. He also misses the point that the five-note motif he is messing up in the introduction is a thematic inversion of the recurring motif which from bar 55 on features prominently in the following Allegro. And yet, this kind of breathtaking musical ignorance goes completely unnoticed and the critics are raving. Some of them fall for the advertisement ("a quite different style of rhetoric") and the others cannot read music and do not know the piece in the first place. Jacobs's recording of K. 504 was awarded the "Diapason d'or Arte" from the French magazine Diapason as well as the highest possible ratings from Classica Répertoire and This method of fooling gullible (and not really qualified) critics works in every genre of classical music, including Schubert songs.

In September 2009 Harmonia Mundi released an eagerly awaited recording of Schubert's "Winterreise", performed by tenor Mark Padmore and pianist Paul Lewis. The British music critics were giddy with excitement. John Steane, critic of the magazine Gramophone ("The world's authority on classical music since 1923") raved as follows:
Ah, this journey! How many have made it, sincerely and imaginatively, two setting out as nearly as possible as one! So many on records too, following the elusive track as with torchlight concentrated upon it. Yet, of all, I cannot think of one (not even Fischer-Dieskau in his 1965 DG recording with Jörg Demus) that leads more faithfully to the cold comfort of its end. And when we get there in this performance, what an end it is! [...] On we go, lulled and tormented by the magic music-box of "Frühlingstraum", till the tragic chord before "so elend nicht" in "Einsamkeit" brings a dreadful reality into focus. The deceptive sweetness of "Die Krähe", the giddy disorientation of "Letzte Hoffnung", the subdued feverish excitements of "Täuschung" find an almost holy stability in "Das Wirtshaus", but still the external world exists, felt as almost an intrusion in "Mut". And soon we meet the organ-grinder. And his secrets must on no account be revealed by reviewer or arts-gossip. And the listener must wait, out of respect to this marvellous partnership of Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis, until time can be taken for it, alone and uninterrupted, to accompany them on the journey through to its unearthly end.
On ClassicalNet the critic Mark Sealey found the following words of praise:
This excellent new Winterreise is one for the twenty-first century. Understated yet passionate; reflective yet not self-indulgent; spare, yet rich in the wonderful melodies in which the cycle abounds, it succeeds in meeting many quite disparate expectations, yet makes no compromises. To sing about recollection, lost love, death and resignation is actually harder than merely to sing mournfully, slowly and wistfully. The two performers here (Mark Padmore, tenor, Paul Lewis, piano) have produced an excellent embodiment of the songs' varying (for variety is key) moods and outlooks.
The London Evening Standard's Nick Kimberley (who also thinks that "Winterreise is about the voice, not the piano") stated: "Schubert couldn't be better served […] Padmore's great gift, apart from his prodigious technical ability,whether to float a line with perfect legato or to enter pianissimo at the top of his range, is to sing from the soul." The recording was awarded the highest honors. It got an "ffff" rating from Télérama, received Gramophone's "Editor's Choice" and "Recording of the Month" laurel, an "IRR Outstanding" from the International Record Review and eventually won the 2010 Gramophone Award in the category "Solo Vocal". And yet Padmore's and Lewis's recording is marred by grave musical flaws for which only the pianist bears responsibility. I will not even delve deeper into the embarrassing fact that Lewis – being obviously unaware of the scholarly literature on this topic – still mistakenly aligns the dotted figure in the left hand with the triplet in the right in the songs "Wasserflut" and "Irrlicht". This is not a minor musical detail that can be performed ad libitum. The whole issue has convincingly been settled once and for all by David Montgomery, not only in his article "Triplet Assimilation in the Music of Schubert: Challenging the Ideal" in Historical Performance vol. 6/2 (1993), pp. 79–97, but also in his excellent book Franz Schubert's Music in Performance (2003, Hillsdale: Pendragon Press). In his 1971(!) recording of "Winterreise" with Hermann Prey, the late Wolfgang Sawallisch already showed how the piano introduction of "Wasserflut" is played correctly

As far as the piano part of "Der Leiermann" is concerned, Lewis takes Eisenlohr's mistaken concept to a more extreme and even crueler level. While Eisenlohr in the first two bars concedes the dissonance at least a little grace note quality, Lewis plays the dissonant grace note together with the fundamental and the fifth and then releases the grace – but much too late to make it the 1/16 note which is notated in the first two bars. This is the method of playing acciaccature that Artur Schnabel used to recommend: two notes together and then release one of them quickly. But this is not what is written in the score and it does not produce the hurdy gurdy sound that Schubert was looking for. Lewis shows no mercy at all. He ruthlessly repeats the dissonant bass chord up to the final bar of the "Winterreise" which now – in the well-known Eisenlohr tradition – has to end on a dissonant chord.

Let me explain what Schubert had in mind and why Eisenlohr's and Lewis's interpretations are completely untenable from a a musical point of view. Of course Schubert relied on the "intelligent pianist", but in no way does this mean that Schubert himself was not intelligent enough to unambiguously write down what he wanted the pianist to play. Hurdy gurdies have multiple drone strings, which give a constant pitch accompaniment to the melody, resulting in a sound similar to that of bagpipes. Those drone strings are tuned in fifths and fourths, but never in diminished fifths (as played by Eisenlohr and Lewis). Schubert achieves the bagpipe effect of the drone strings with long perfect fifths in the left hand:

The 1/16 grace note, a semitone below the fifth, imitates the short slur caused by the transient state of the string between the first motion of the hurdy gurdy's wheel and the moment the string reaches its maximum (i.e. continuous) frequency. The grace note in the second bar suggests that the wheel has come to a standstill after the first bar and then is being cranked again. From the third bar on the short slur (the appoggiatura) is no longer audible, because the wheel must be moved steadily to produce the melody on the hurdy gurdy's melody strings (i.e. the pianist's right hand). Eisenlohr's argument that his continuing dissonant note shows the "never standing still" of the hurdy gurdy is the exact opposite of what is going on in Schubert's score: fact of the matter is that the absence of the grace note after two bars proves the steady movement of the hurdy gurdy's wheel. The dissonant grace note does not represent a third drone string or "a hurdy gurdy out of tune" (as proposed by Eisenlohr). It cleverly imitates a very short and purely physical event in the course of "warming up" the instrument. There are also esthetic reasons as to why there are only two appoggiaturas in the song. Schubert doubtlessly realized that the repetition of the grace note throughout the whole song would heavily distract from the singing voice and would result in exactly the boring unmusical overkill that Eisenlohr and Lewis achieve with their merciless dissonant redundancy. Schubert knew very well how to repeat a figure if he wanted it. Contrary to a hypothesis put forward by Nigel Nettheim in The Schubertian (No. 31, January 2001, pp. 2-3), there is no "implied simile" in "Der Leiermann". There is no need to even touch the issue of ending the song on a dissonant chord. Not only is it unthinkable from a historical point of view, it is the kind of musical tomfoolery that actually serves as evidence that Schubert did not want the appoggiatura to be applied in more than two bars: if he had really implied a "simile", he would have indicated to end it before the final chord.

None of the above problems in Paul Lewis's performance were ever noticed and addressed by the critics who chose this particular recording to receive the 2010 Gramophone Award. They seem to have followed Eisenlohr's principle that "there is not just one proper way to read and interprete a work of art" and they were obviously under the impression that Lewis had found some kind of "Philosopher's Stone" of Schubert performance. Of course there is some truth in Eisenlohr's point of view. But we must never forget that the number of improper ways to read a work of art is infinite. I have been told that the pianist Wolfram Rieger has been following Eisenlohr's and Lewis's example in his live performances of "Winterreise", together with the singer Thomas Hampson, by droning out the poor "Leiermann" with sixty-one consecutive dissonant bass chords. He will certainly not be the last pianist to do so.

Update (January 2015)

Padmore's and Lewis's performance of "Der Leiermann" has now become available on YouTube with an animated score and it is truly bizarre to hear and see that Lewis does not play what the composer wrote.


  1. Schubert obvious he didn't have in mind the "stupid pianist"!

  2. Well, most good pianists would simply follow the score - which is not a stupid thing to do in the absence of more compelling research. Unfortunately, the fashion today (based on a thirst for recognition, no matter what one's talent level might be) is to convince recording companies that one has found the "touchstone" for Schubert performance. Usually in such cases of ambition, one is likely only to have touched a stone of some lesser sort - probably a rock you could stumble upon on your way to any market in the world.

  3. As an inept amateur pianist I have from time to time wondered about how grace notes should be played, not least as it seems that the method used in one century might not suit the next. So I am delighted to find your useful account. I am less delighted by the youTube Der Leierman - it’s hard to believe that Padmore, and presumably Trekel, and Hampson, could agree to such a jarring sound.
    I was also interested to read the Padmore reviews, which appear to follow the conventional line that Winterreise should convey deepening despair, gloom and so forth, punctuated by a few moments of light relief. Personally I find this at variance with the mercurial moods that Schubert displays in most of his works. Among the many recent fine recordings, Holzmair and Haefliger (dismissed by the Gramophone, but well received by Diapaison and Fonoforum) are particularly successful at shifting between glimpses of hope, moments of calm, and rising panic as yet another illusions is shattered, in a way that conveys anxiety and psychological unrest rather effectively. It’s even possible that their Leierman might turn out to be friend rather than foe - an ambivalence that one can’t reconcile with jarring dissonances (not in Haefliger’s account).

  4. I think there is far too much "assumed" about what Schubert may have wanted from this piece. What can not be overlooked in this piece is its simplicity, and the amount of cerebral activity that has gone on trying to interpret this piece far exceeds the time it took to write it. Who knows, perhaps Schubert may have been happy for other suggestions as to how to play the piece. He was just a man after all, not a god. Art is there to be interpreted, otherwise the "variation" can be interpreted as nothing more than an artistic invalidity. Artistic perfection is completely subjective. A purist in any case would demand that this piece be played on a fortepiano, and not on a modern style concert grand, since this was true to the sound at the time. I like Quasthoff's version the best, and is the version I find most moving, but who knows which version of the Hurdy Gurdy Man Schubert himself would have preferred, he may have even liked Sting's version...but unfortunately he is no longer with us to be asked. .

  5. You speak out against too much "assuming" about this piece, only to claim in the next sentence that you know "the time it took to write it". Truly amazing.

  6. Harry Plunkett Green is also on You Tube - Chalk & Cheese!
    Thank-you so much for saying what you have said about this hideous hooliganised new version of this extraordinary and wonderful piece of music. Is there a better word than illiteracy for it? I am amazed any recording company would issue this, and fear for the rest of the company's repertoire. I am not a music snob, but I can hear when something is seriously wrong!