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 – immediately 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 first page of Schubert's "Der Leyermann" in the autograph b minor version (US-NYpm, Cary 215, Part II, fol. 15r)

The result of Eisenlohr's bizarre idea is fatal. At the beginning of each measure, all the way through the lied, we now hear a dissonant chord in the bass which reaches a peak of tasteless cruelty at that moment when 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 interpretors 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 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:

Daniel Barenboim:

and Leonard Borwick:

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 apply the following 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 nothing but paid ads of 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

The musicologist Theodor Kroyer considered the interpretation of the aforesaid appogiaturas so obvious that he had them written out in both of his Eulenburg pocket score editions (Edition Eulenburg No. 446).

Bars 20-25 of the slow introduction of K. 504 in Theodor Kroyer's edition for Eulenburg

Instead of having them played as regular 1/32nds (as intended by Mozart), Jacobs turns the appoggiaturas into short grace notes, because he obviously considers himself more knowledgable in matters of eighteenth-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 brilliantly applied 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, while the critics are raving. Some of them fall for the advertisement ("a quite different style of rhetoric") and the others cannot even read music and do not know the piece to begin with. 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 totally unqualified) 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. In the Bärenreiter complete edition, Walther Dürr claimed that "The notational style in the sources suggests that triplets and dotted eighths should be treated as rhythmically identical throughout the lied." Dürr was wrong. The whole issue has convincingly been settled once and for all by the American pianist 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 that 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 trying to convey. 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 (warning to listeners: extremely ugly sound bite!).

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. These 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, p. 2f.), 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 is 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 awarded this particular recording 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 a grain of 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.

© Dr. Michael Lorenz 2013. All rights reserved.

Updated: 26 September 2023

Update (20 January 2018)

In his next recording of Winterreise, released in January 2018 by Harmonia Mundi, Mark Padmore found yet another willing accomplice in Kristian Bezuidenhout who (performing on a period instrument) ruthlessly mishandles the piano part of "Der Leiermann" in the fashion described above. It seems that Padmore is the driving force behind this mistaken idea that makes his accompanists suddenly lose all their musical common sense.

Update (13 April 2018)

The next proof that stupidity can go viral among musicians was presented by the English pianist Christopher Glynn who, on his recording of "Winterreise" with the baritone Roderick Williams (in an English version titled Winter Journey), mercilessly demonstrates that Schubert's acoustic depiction of a hurdy-gurdy is much too sophisticated to be understood and performed correctly by today's mortals.

Update (16 December 2021)

One should not believe that the reservoir of Drehleier-nonsense will ever be exhausted. More recent recordings of Schubert's "Winterreise" also offer curious abuse of the piano part of "Der Leiermann". On Markus Schäfer's recording of "Winterreise", which was published in June 2021, the pianist Tobias Koch presents a bizarre combination of Eisenlohr's approach and his own arbitrariness: he brutally plays the dissonance through the entire song, including on the final chord, but demonstrates a bizarre inconsistency in the introduction where he sometimes holds the grace note into the chord and sometimes plays it in unison with the chord. Note the final chord in this recording where human stupidity again comes to audible fruition.

In 2015, the tenor Daniel Behle published a double CD on the Sony Classics label, entitled "Winterreisen" where he combined his own arrangement of the cycle for voice and piano trio with the "original version" for voice and piano. Unfortunately, Behle's pianist Oliver Schnyder could not untangle his mind from Behle's "arrangement" (recomposition) of "Der Leiermann" where, at the beginning of the song, a grossly unmusical "grace note" from a third above is introduced by the ruthless arranger (composer). Accordingly (and unfortunately), Schnyder also plays this grotesque note in the supposed original version of "Der Leiermann" – which does not come from Schubert but from Behle. One has to hear it to believe it.

This reminds me of a question I always ask on such occasions: where are the Schubert police when you really need them?

Update (12 February 2022)

Fortunately, only now, it came to my attention that in a more recent recording of "Winterreise", Roman Trekel found yet another accompanist in Oliver Pohl who proudly demonstrates that he has no idea how a hurdy-gurdy works and how to correctly play a Schubert score. Pohl's imitation (parody?) of Ulrich Eisenlohr's misinterpretation of "Der Leiermann" is availablable in a complete recording of "Winterreise" on YouTube.

On 11 February 2022, Alpha Classics released Bernhard Appl's recording of "Winterreise" which had been long awaited by servile journalists who in the past had heaped praise on the German baritone's recordings. Appl's accompanist on this new CD is the South African pianist James Baillieu. One could write a detailed review of this CD, addressing all of Appl's vocal problems, which reveal themselves in the interpretation of Schubert's lieder. Appl has a quite pleasant voice which sometimes sounds very nice in slow tempi. However, the moment he has to sing fast melodic material, his intonation slips completely and he produces (usually slightly sharp) notes that leave the listener in the dark as to which key he is actually singing in. So far, this has been particularly unpleasant in his interpretations of up-tempo arias by Bach, such as "Großer Herr, o starker König" from BWV 248. Not surprisingly, Appl runs into similar problems in the fast lieder of "Winterreise" and it is certainly no coincidence that a promotional video on YouTube only features the lied "Gute Nacht". In "Der stürmische Morgen" he is close to tipping over into an off-pitch Sprechgesang that merely outlines the melody. But that is a side issue here. As he has already shown in 2021, in a live performance with Mark Padmore, the pianist James Baillieu is completely infected with the Eisenlohr virus and plays the well-known dreaded dissonance in the bass in every bar of "Der Leiermann". And of course, he also applies this unmusical tomfoolery in the final chord. What an unrecognized avant-gardist and revolutionary Neutöner this Schubert was! It can be safely presumed that the paid reviews in glossy music magazines will be ecstatic in their praise of this new release.


  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.

    1. Well, come now, I think he was just employing a bit of hyperbole to say in effect, "too much energy expended on a relatively trivial issue." He didn't "claim to know" how much time Schubert took to write it. It was rhetorical, not literal.

      Having said, I completely agree with you about not "correcting" a composer's "mistakes" or imposing one's own ideas on a work of art. In any interpretation or reading of a work, among the many possible meanings one must not forget to include the most obvious and literal one, i.e. precisely what is written on the page, not one note more or less.

      I was fascinated, by the way, to learn about the hurdy gurdy and the technical/mechanical reasons that likely influenced Schubert's rendering. That would never have occurred to me.

      Very informative and well-argued.


      PS - Sorry it took me five years to make a comment on your article—I had to wait ages for the bus.

  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!

  7. Another problem with the Christopher Glynn/Roderick Williams performance is the horrendous English translation which doen't even reflect the original German. They've transformed this most bleak of all endings into a piece of excrutiating adolescent self-pity.

  8. Another problem with the Christopher Glynn/Roderick Williams performance is the horrendous English translation which doesn’t even reflect the original German. They've transformed this most bleak of all endings into a piece of excruciating adolescent self-pity.

  9. The basic problem about those pianists seems to be that they obviously have not the tiniest piece of knowledge and experience about a hurdy-gurdy at all.

  10. Good article. Kroyer's interpretation of the Mozart appogiaturas is textbook, though I would leave them notated tye way Mozart does. To play them as acciacaturas is bizarre. Likewise, play Der Leiermann as written. The idea that you should play the grace note in every bar is without foundation.