Die Winterreise in Oxford by Thomas Allen (at 70)

Three days of Schubert Lieder at Oxford which made one gasp in astonishment at his extraordinary powers of invention, in capturing in song the heights and depths of human emotions. While many of the songs were unfamiliar, this was not of course true of Die Winterreise, surely one of the pinnacles of Western musical culture. A hugely demanding work to perform, the intriguing question was how it was to fare in the hands of Thomas Allen who recently celebrated his 70th birthday.

I confess that I was a little apprehensive. Years ago, also in Oxford, I had a heard an elderly Hans Hotter fail to do justice to Schubert’s masterwork; he simply no longer had the vocal capacities for the task. In complete contrast, Thomas Allen was in magnificent voice and, if some of the pianissimo passages would have come more easily to him earlier in his career, this was more than compensated for by the richness and colour of his performance, as he portrayed the anguish and despair of the traveller, bereft of hope in his lonely journey.

More than this, Allen’s interpretation was personal and deeply felt. This was not the haunted musings of an individual at the end of a barren road and life. Rather, it was a defiant outburst of someone enraged at his fate and at the joys of which he had been deprived. Did it also, I asked myself in my 70th year, have something to do with Allen’s own circumstances? Was he saying to himself (and to us) that even so late in an illustrious career, there are still ideals to pursue and new territories to conquer? I like to think so. As if also to confound the relevance of age, the young pianist Joseph Middleton brought maturity and reflection to the accompaniment, so that the pauses spoke as loudly as the vivid depiction of the winter environment. A truly great evening.