Schubert’s Winterreise on the Trombone

by Janet I. Wasserman

I have just listened to Bertl Mütter’s CD of his live Vienna performance last year of Winterreise played on the trombone. He also plays on the euphonium, and occasionally ‘sings’ along in German, with cartoon-like squeaky and hoarse Voices, yelps and grunts. Other voices are added from a variety of intercuts from Winterreise CDs (I think) by assorted tenors and baritones accompanied in that old traditional mode on the piano. This mode is well known as Schubert lieder.
This is not your father’s Winterreise. It is wild, provocative, inventive and discordant, and does not at all sound like Schubert, except for a phrase or two. Track 21 begins to sound Schubertian, but after the previous 20 tracks that may not be a good thing to happen to me. However, his ‘Leiermann’ track, 24 of course, is really quite haunting in its own way. Anyone who has seen and/or heard ‘Der Leiermann’ sung in ‘the old traditional way’ is already predisposed to the song’s haunting and chilling quality. Mütter may be Schubert-inspired – he comes from Steyr and is very conscious of the town’s Schubert-associated history – but do not expect early 19th-century Romantic lieder the way you’ve always heard it. Bertl Mütter is a fine musician, make no mistake, with his own views of music, life and heaven knows what else. When he says monty Python and Laurel and Hardy were among his influences – believe him! Here is his own ‘selected’ list from his website:
Louis Armstrong, Johann Sebastian Bach, Luciano Berio, Thomas Bernhard, Jorge Luis Borges, Anton Bruckner, Elias Canetti, Morton Feldman, Ella Fitzgerald, Egon Friedell, Vinko Globokar, Nina Hagen, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Ernst Jandl, Franz Kafka, Laurel and Hardy, Gustav Mahler, Lauren Newton, Julius Patzak, Perotin, Pygmäen, Monty Python, Helmut Qualtinger, Franz Schubert, Karl Valentin, Fritz Wunderlich.
Mütter is serious about his music and very good at it; he is quite technically accomplished on the trombone. He is also ideosyncratic, improvisatory, thoughtful and in your face. He is on the edge (maybe already over the edge) of mocking Schubert, despite his assertion that he is paying homage to Schubert and to the great names in Schubert lieder like Hotter, Prégardien, Hampson, Quasthoff, Fischer-Dieskau and Wunderlich – again, Mütter‘s list. I cannot remember ever a Schubert like this.
Frankly, I am too traditional (read old fashioned) to want to hear other Schubert renditions, for example, from virtuosi of the kazoo and penny whistle, or comb-and-tissue-paper artistes. I hope Bertl Mütter retains his sole preeminence for all time as the most unusual and different interpreter of Schubert’s Winterreise.

© Janet I. Wasserman, 2002
The Schubertian, Journal of The Schubert Institute (UK), No. 36, July 2002

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