Ian Bostridge
Ian Bostridge | Credit: Kalpesh Lathigra

There is a single moment in “Gute Nacht” (Good night), the first song of Schubert’s Winterreise, that captures the spirit of the entire cycle. After three verses in a plaintive D minor, the steady chordal piano accompaniment introduces a change to D major for the final verse. “I’ll not disturb your dreams, / A shame to spoil your rest,” sings the protagonist, an alienated lover who departs on a journey under vague circumstances.

As the now-familiar melody is repeated in the major, it should be happier — at least according to the conventional laws of music. And it is: In the new key, the melancholy lament is transformed into a lullaby of caressing sweetness. But the outward beauty of the tune is undercut by the knowledge that the moment is illusory, fleeting — as tenor Ian Bostridge puts it, “This radiant thought of the girl, asleep and dreaming, is itself a dream.”

Psychological fragmentation, the uncertain relationship between dreams and reality — these are the themes that Schubert invented a musical language to capture in Winterreise, a setting of 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller. On Saturday, Bostridge and pianist Wenwen Du delivered a masterful rendition of the piece at Herbst Theatre for San Francisco Performances.

Book cover
Cover of Bostridge’s 2014 book Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession

Bostridge is one of the leading interpreters of Schubert’s lieder today, and Winterreise has been a particular obsession for him. He has performed the cycle hundreds of times and recorded it twice, and he wrote an excellently researched 2014 book on the piece (the tenor trained as a historian at Oxford). Given the cycle’s emotional difficulty and, at times, inscrutability, Bostridge’s long-term engagement makes sense. This “winter’s journey,” which Schubert composed at the end of his life in the face of declining health, is the intense inner monologue of a man who leaves his lover’s house in the first song and wanders into the unknown. On his path, he dreams, reminisces, rages, despairs; he craves rest and then death, but they elude him. He forges onward, with nothing but his imagination (or is it delusion?) for company.

Bostridge’s commanding performance on Saturday reflected his long history with the piece, which he kept impressively alive and spontaneous here. The 58-year-old tenor has always sung with a relatively straight tone and a bell-like quality eminently appropriate to Schubert’s directly expressive lieder. The voice has darkened slightly in recent years; there is no trace of huskiness, but the characteristic ping has attenuated somewhat. But the absence of operatic grandiosity in his sound — clearly indebted to the angelic technique of the English choral tradition — allows Bostridge to illuminate the finest shadings of meaning in the text.

As an interpreter, Bostridge emphasizes the cracks and fissures of a piece that ambitiously embraces narrative and anti-narrative, music and anti-music, hope and desperation. Although he has matured since his first encounters with Winterreise, the tenor managed to create an ageless protagonist at Herbst, a character who could move in an instant from the quivering hotheadedness of youth to the world-weariness of old age, from Hamlet to Lear.

Bostridge’s strength lies in his ability to bring out the music’s constantly shifting moods. He is a theatrical singer; in this performance, he moved around the stage restlessly, sometimes turning away from the audience and staring into the piano, sometimes leaning back into it with resignation, sometimes stepping forward. There were plenty of facial grimaces and contortions, too. Traditionalists would condemn this as undisciplined and distracting, but it is born out of the singer’s deeply personal reading of the piece. He paid fastidious attention to textual detail. The German diction was crisp, every poetic verse finely chiseled and variegated.

Wenwen Du
Wenwen Du | Credit: Sophie Zhai/Sophie Studio

Bostridge’s fleetness responded to and accentuated the mercurial quality of the composition. Winterreise’s changes in mood take place between songs but also within them, and the tenor’s frantic persona demonstrated that even moments of apparent repose are fragile and fleeting. In “Der Lindenbaum” (The linden tree), a folklike ballad about the peacefulness of nature, Bostridge achieved a remarkable blend of self-assured fullness and intimate delicacy, which yielded precipitously to the burning grief of “Wasserflut” (Flood). The tenor’s voice cracked on the top note at the end of that song’s first stanza, but this technical defect was entirely appropriate to the searing, sense-destroying pain of the moment. Concluding the song, Bostridge rose to a desperate shout. His willingness to challenge the limits of timbral refinement demonstrated his total commitment to the music’s radical emotional extremes.

If the protagonist of Winterreise is an outlet for untrammeled emotional expression, perhaps the piano stands in for the unconscious. Though it never upstages the singer, the piano stands by him, sometimes supportive, sometimes threatening, sometimes indifferent. Wenwen Du, a longtime collaborator of Bostridge’s, inhabited this role impeccably. Her readings were strikingly sharp, poignant, and vibrant. In the murky, halting opening to “Im Dorfe” (In the village), Du shaped the phrases with enough propulsion to keep momentum while preserving a sense of trepidation — a perilous balance to strike but executed flawlessly. And at the end of “Das Wirtshaus” (The inn), Du brought the pianissimo hymn of the introduction up to a spectacular forte, a bold choice not indicated in the score but which gloriously captured the protagonist’s fatalistic commitment at that moment. “Ever onwards,” he has just declared, although he only has three songs left in him.

Winterreise’s greatest asset is also its biggest flaw. The piece provides an unflinching portrayal of despair, and though there are moments of great beauty, the prevailing mood is tragic. Little solace can be found in the content, but in the hands of an ideal team like Bostridge and Du, a performance of the cycle is, in spite of itself, a testament to the capacity of music to articulate — if not transcend — human suffering. On Saturday, Bostridge proved that this devastating work is worth hearing again (and again and again), not because it is a universal story but because it is such a particular one. By confronting head-on the crags and rivulets of this nameless protagonist’s psyche, the hope is that we may learn something about ourselves.