Schubert’s Winterreise is Philippe Sly’s musical touchstone

Philippe Sly will be performing Die Winterreise as part of the Chamberfest concert series.

“A stranger I arrived; a stranger I depart.”
— From Gute Nacht, Die Winterreise

Franz Schubert’s Die Winterriese is one of two song cycles that set the poetry of the German Romantic Wilhelm Müller.

The 24 songs are among the best known and loved works by the composer. They have drawn the interest of performers such as the great baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the tenors Peter Pears and Jon Vickers. Ballets have been created and even a German metal band has recorded one of the songs.

For the Ottawa native and Montreal resident Philippe Sly, the song cycle is a musical touchstone.

“Winterreise was a piece that I wanted to engage with early in my career and I want to come back to it over and over again.”

True to that commitment, Sly, who is a classically trained bass baritone, has prepared,  with some of his closest musical friends, a unique version of the Winterreise. It can be seen and heard on Jan. 20 in the Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre as part of the Chamberfest concert series.

The group calls itself Le Chimera Project. It features Sly, Félix de l’Étoile (clarinet), Karine Gordon (trombone), Samuel Carrier (accordion), Jonathan Millette (violin),
Roy Rallo, who is the stage director and Doey Lüthi, who is a stage designer. Looking at that list you see instruments that are perhaps more often paired in a klezmer band and you see people with theatrical training.

“I heard my friend Felix perform one of the pieces on his clarinet with an accordion player. I realized there was something about the sound of the clarinet and the accordion that suited Winterreise.” And he wondered how far the ensemble could take this.

Sly believes, “it is possible to take music and make it something else and still retain the essence of the piece. I would add to that in arranging the music we didn’t really add that many new notes.

“The intent was really to go to the heart of what is fundamental to the piece.

The act of arranging the music was more “an act of interpretation and discovery.”

Schubert wrote two large song cycles featuring Muller’s poetry. The first was Die schöne Müllerin or The Beautiful Miller’s Daughter. “That is a cycle with a clear narrative that takes place over time. It is a story,” Sly said. And the second is Winterreise. Unlike the former work, this cycle is less clear, more metaphysical, Sly added.

It was produced in two chunks as the poetry was published. “There is a disjointed quality to the piece” as a result, Sly said.

“The musical ideas are more compact and themes return more frequently. We do have a context. We have a character, call him the narrator, who has been jilted at the onset of the piece. He is leaving the home of his former beloved and he goes off into the night and seemingly leaving the city in winter.

“There is a series of meditations on sorrow, on loss and on guilt and the idea of being a stranger to society. If I am a stranger where is the ground of my being? What can I rely upon?

“He comes to a graveyard and he asks the graveyard is there a plot for him and the graveyard replies there is no place for him. Even death is not a release.”

Sly says that some think the cycle is about death but “I am in complete disagreement. The piece is about how to find meaning in the world. You need to integrate pain and sorrow somehow.” It even predates Nietszche, he said. There is a moment where the narrator says ‘If there’s no God on earth, then we ourselves are gods!’

Sly and Roy Rallo are friends from the days when Sly was with the SanFrancisco Opera.

“We wanted to create a show together. We wanted to create some sort of production that resonated with the idea of the stranger, a person with no home.” Normally, a Schubert song cycle features a singer in a tuxedo and a person playing the piano.

“We are playing against the tradition of the pianist and the singer, which is kind of static,” Sly said.

“We wanted to explore what it would be like if we were all memorized and so we could play with the music and be free to let music guide us unrestricted by the formality of the classical experience.”

In the performance then all four musicians are on stage with Sly.

“We are interacting and moving in different formations and making use of the acoustic space. Without giving too much away, it is a theatrical experience. There are lighting cues and certain number of effects,” he added.

Sly has performed Die Winterreise in the more formal way.

“It’s a harrowing experience either way. This is the thing about performing a leider concert — you are performing non-st0p. The act of getting through it is an event.”

Müller’s poetry is mysterious, he says.

“It isn’t clear what Muller is trying to get at. There are symbols that aren’t well-defined. Because it is opaque and mysterious and because it can be interpreted in so many different ways it keeps me fascinated. Winterreise is like a white-out.”

Seems like the timing is good for a concert in January.

A chimera is a mythical fire-breathing female monster with a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a serpent’s tail.

So it’s made up of disparate parts. The project itself involves artists from different  disciplines. Sly is a classical musician, Rallo directs opera, some of the performers are from big band, some from jazz and from folk. They have create a show that doesn’t seem to fall into a particular category.

“The act of doing this is intended to be very respectful of Schubert. Our present idea of how classical music should be performed was created long after Schubert’s time.”

He mostly performed in house parties and “we are just a bunch of friends making music together. That’s at the heart of it.”

Work began on the project in 2016. Out of the effort has come an album and a concert presentation. The album made the CBC’s top 20 Canadian classical albums of 2019.

Sly says this version of Winterreise is “refreshing for me too because I can release myself and be more experimental with my vocalism. It’s also liberating to be embodied on stage in a way that can make use of the music in the moment.

“To be able to sing well, to perform well, you need to be still internally. Everybody has a different way of finding that stillness. A lot of people who try to be still are creating a lot of tension.”

He realized that he was more relaxed when he was performing in opera, when “I was able to move as a character. I was more comfortable and calm than when singing a recital and trying to be still.”

In this piece “I can devote my whole self to the music and not just my voice.”

“When you commit to (the music) completely, when you are engaged in what I call quality there is a selflessness to that. It is self-evident when it is good. When it is good it resonates with people.

“I do believe in rigour in music making. You need limits in order to break them The rules are there for a good reason they allow creativity. When you break a rule you are actually reinforcing the rule.”

Sly will be back in Ottawa in early February singing Mozart’s Mass in C at the National Arts Centre under the baton of Yannick Nézet-Séguin, someone he has worked with several times.

As for Winterreise, it is in Toronto on Jan. 17 and after the Ottawa show will tour to Trois Rivieres and Alma in Quebec. Sly is planning a stop in La Tuque, where his family is. He’s looking forward to some home cooking.

Where: Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre
When: Jan. 20 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.