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'Mount Everest of music': Bemidji State professors release 'Winterreise' project

Franz Schubert’s song cycle “Winterreise” – or “Winter Journey” – can be considered a bucket list item for piano and voice performers, and two Bemidji State music professors have recently crossed it off their own lists.

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Bemidji State music professors Stephen Carlson, left, and Cory Renbarger, recently released their own version of Franz Schubert’s song cycle “Winterreise.”
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer
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BEMIDJI — Franz Schubert’s song cycle “Winterreise” — or “Winter Journey” — can be considered a bucket list item for piano and voice performers, and two Bemidji State music professors have recently crossed it off their own lists.

Now available on compact disc and music streaming services, pianist Stephen Carlson and baritone singer Cory Renbarger have released their own version of the Romantic era project completed in 1827.

Set to 24 poems by German poet Wilhelm Muller, Carlson described the project as the “Mount Everest” of Romantic period song cycles.

“It’s mammoth in terms of scale, in terms of profundity and artistic depth across the board,” Carlson said.

Carlson referenced Schubert’s earlier song cycle, “Die Schone Mullerin,” which was also based on Muller’s poetry to contrast the two works.


“The other song cycle has a happy ending. This one, not so much. It’s the dark side of Romanticism,” Carlson added. “This is the story of a man experiencing unrequited love, loneliness and misery. Even in ‘Fruhlingstraum’ (the 11th song), the beauty of spring is shattered when he realizes that it is only a dream.”

Making it their own

Carlson initially approached Renbarger with the idea of performing “Winterreise” for live audiences long before the coronavirus pandemic struck in March 2020.

“I remember when Cory auditioned around 11 years ago for the job. I was just thrilled and excited to think this mature project would be something we could approach down the road,” Carlson said.

“Over the years, this has really become a war horse for the baritone voice," Renbarger added. "This is really a rite of passage in some ways. The fact that (Carlson) asked me to do this, I didn’t pause for very long when presented with the opportunity.”

The duo first performed the project in March 2019 at the True Concord Concert Series in Tucson, Ariz.

“We were told by several people afterward, ‘for a first performance this was really phenomenal. You two gentlemen ought to consider recording this,’” Carlson recalled.

Carlson and Renbarger planned to revisit the idea in a few months, but other gigs, Renbarger’s sabbatical and the pandemic — adding strain to their full-time commitments — put a temporary halt on those plans.

The two were able to realize their vision before too long, however.


“Once the pandemic hit and we couldn’t perform it publicly for a while, (Carlson) came to me and said, ‘let’s record it,’” Renbarger said.

They enlisted the help of David Trembley of SoundMaster Productions in Minneapolis to record “Winterreise” in May 2021.

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With help from David Trembley of SoundMaster Productions in Minneapolis, pianist Stephen Carlson and baritone singer Cory Renbarger recorded their version of “Winterreise” in May 2021.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer

Along with its release this year, the duo has been able to perform live again. Most recently, they performed in Bemidji in December 2021 and are planning encore appearances for this fall.

Juxtaposing their live performances and CD release, Renbarger mentioned, “it’s one of those things where the recording truly represents a snapshot in time. Every time we go back to it, we find new things, new colors, new moments and that’s what’s great about this piece of music. I think we could do it for the rest of our lives and still find new things.”

Renbarger feels the collaboration allowed himself and Carlson to make the project their own.

“A lot of people perform this (...) absolutely defeated. I don’t think we approached it with defeat,” Renbarger said. “We’re tough, we live in this winter and I think that came through. We attacked a few things a little more aggressively and what ends up happening is a beautiful arc. There’s a distinct point where you can tell that the character has finally accepted defeat.

“It’s honest, it’s authentic. What I’m most proud of is that we produced something beautiful and meaningful during this time.”

'Live in Recital'

Trembley also edited, mixed and mastered Carlson’s solo project, “Live in Recital,” which marked the BSU music department’s first live performance since the pandemic dashed many concerts in spring 2020.


Recorded live in October 2020, Carlson selected nine pieces starting off with Ludwig Van Beethoven’s “32 Variations in C Minor.”

“It’s kind of a scary opener because it’s a very flashy piece in many ways,” Carlson said. “Some would say it’s a show-off piece, but I don’t ever program things just for the purpose of showing off.”

Carlson also selected Franz Haydn’s “Sonata in C Minor” and Bela Bartok’s “Roumanian Dance” to complete the first half of his recital.

His next three pieces included “Bruyeres,” “La Puerta Del Vino,” and “L’isle Joyeuse” by Claude Debussy. He then programmed Franz Liszt’s “Petrarch Sonnet” and “St. Francis of Paola Walking on the Water” to round out the recording.

“Selecting, practicing and preparing the program took a better part of six months, and I’m very proud of the product, especially for a live recording,” Carlson mentioned.

Carlson looks forward to future projects and collaborations that are set to premiere this fall and honing community support for the arts along the way.

“This is an artistically thirsty, vibrant area with people who are genuinely interested and supportive,” he left off, “and I’m grateful for that.”

CDs are available by contacting either Carlson or Renbarger via email at stephen.carlson@bemidjistate.edu or cory.renbarger@bemidjistate.edu.

Both projects can also be found on Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music among other platforms.

Daltyn Lofstrom is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer focusing on education and community stories.
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