An idiosyncratic cover version
Two remarkable personalities covering a broad spectrum between pop, classical and
experimental music embark on an artistic exploration of Schubert’s Winterreise.
To this end, Oliver Welter, musician and lead singer of the Austrian cult band Naked Lunch, joins forces with pianist, sound and performance artist Clara Frühstück. The result is a cover version of sorts that examines Franz Schubert and Wilhelm Müller’s existential masterpiece from a radically contemporary and subjective point of view.
Their intention is by no means to perform a replica of the song cycle in a classical sense. Moreover, it is about the idiosyncratic process of artistic appropriation and reinterpretation. Rather than emulate any given „ideal expression“, the duo unearths the essence of these eerily beautiful songs with great passion and a deep understanding of pop music. Schubert and Müller’s Lieder become Welter and Frühstück’s songs. The Winterreise is thus not only a journey to the end of our existence but also to the end of pop. The verdict of Austrian philosopher, radio broadcaster, director, and musician
Fritz Ostermayer: „shockingly good“. At the invitation of Burgtheater director Martin Kušej, the Winterreise had its highly acclaimed premiere in June 2021 at the Viennese Akademietheater.
Strangers in The Night:
A winter journey to the end of pop
Fritz Ostermayer / translation Emily Stewart
„(…) I will play you a cycle of terrifying songs; they have affected me more than has ever been the case with any other songs.“ He then, with a voice full of feeling, sang the entire Winterreise for us. We were altogether dumbfounded by the sombre mood of these songs, and Schober said that one song only, „Der Lindenbaum“, had pleased him. Thereupon Schubert leaped up and replied: „These songs please me more than all the rest, and in time they will please you as well.“
Franz Schubert’s friend Joseph von Spaun
I have recently become aware that philistines can set in motion something substantial. The philistine in this scenario is me, and the limitations of my philistinism are concerned with the classically trained voice, particularly when paired with the art song. I am a music fanatic whose tastes were forged in the realms of pop music, a man who places more value on a broken, tilting, creaking, overall idiosyncratic voice rather than a „beautiful“ one. The pursuit of a voice ideal as a crowning athletic feat is a concept that still baffles me.
This leads us to Clara Frühstück and Oliver Welter’s unique take on Schubert’s Winterreise. The former is a concert pianist tired of the tried-and-true classical routine. In recent years she has delighted in hacking away at her virtuosity in various post-dramatic performances. The latter is a pop musician tired of the fog that’s spread across the music industry. He brings to the table a disposition deranged enough to blithely sail into unchartered waters. This is quite possibly the best starting point for a planned journey to the end of pop.
If you’re going to cover one of the most brilliant song cycles of the Romantic era, the outcome should be pop, in the sense of the remake/remodel. Instead of approaching the subject from the classical art song ideal, the aim was to appropriate Franz Schubert and Wilhelm Müller’s 24 songs from a radically subjective, emotional perspective.
It became apparent that several songs – the hits of the Winterreise, if you will – already possess an innate pop structure, whereas in other cases the complexity of the melody alone resists being subjected to a pop context. This led to discussions about the extent of „artistic freedom“, followed by a brave yet respectful deconstruction of the Winterreise, a fatal journey of obliteration the likes of which have never been heard before.
Regardless of how they get there, every detour, every dead end, every dirt road brings the staggering duo to the place toward which Schubert’s songs and Müller’s lyrics point all along: the darkness at the end of the tunnel. „Im Dunkeln wird mir wohler sein“ (I should feel happier in the dark2): when the fog won’t lift, clarity may be found in the haze. How else do you decide that „Der Lindenbaum“ should mutate from a German folk song into a fingerpicking guitar tune?
The pair revels in taking the forced repetitive structures in Schubert’s songs to extremes. It is a journey of experimentation. Like when during rehearsal Clara Frühstück realises that a certain hollow synth sound is better suited to expressing existential emptiness than the range of her Bösendorfer piano; or that a David Lynch-style guitar reverb suspended over the piano chords is a more fitting way of transforming the atmosphere of futile longing into one of utmost sorrow.
Both Welter and Frühstück are magnificent amplifiers of melancholy. In her 2018 music performance Melo, my Love, the pianist demonstrated that the nocturnal twilight state offers more space for comfort than broad daylight. And in their years-long career, Oliver Welter and his band Naked Lunch proved in turn that it is possible to fill venues with a sweet brand of weltschmerz – even when interrupted by the turmoil of real crises.
The not-quite-pop star Franz Schubert composed his song cycle in 1827, a year before his untimely death. He survived the future popstars of the 27 Club (Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, etc) by four years. Nevertheless, that curious number 27 makes its appearance in the year of the Winterreise’s genesis.
The pre-pop affinities I see here are also shared by tenor and renowned Schubert performer Ian Bostridge in his book Schubert’s Winter Journey. Anatomy of an Obsession, where he calls the Winterreise „the first and greatest of concept albums“. Bostridge’s assertion that „in Schubert the major key often seems sadder than the minor“ is also present in Frühstück and Welter’s covers. As it happens, the pair couldn’t resist singing some of the songs in two-part harmony. Anyone who fails to dissolve in tears after listening to these duets is doomed to a life of rigid automation.
The rest of us are left to bear witness to a journey between two lovers who meet – from different starting points – as Strangers In The Night, and move together henceforth to conquer new and greater depths.
In the end it is an affirmation in humility. That’s the philistine’s take on it. And not even that will keep us from our collective downfall.
„Whenever I attempted to sing of love, it turned to pain. And again, when I tried to sing of pain, it turned to love.”
Franz Schubert, „Mein Traum“, Manuscript, July 3rd 1822.