Following in the footsteps of master-singer Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, tenor Ian Bostridge has spent much of his life on the endless trek that is Franz Schubert’s Winterreise; peering into its prisms, internalizing every nuance of the blended words and ­music—he’s called Schubert’s song cycle “the first and greatest of all concept albums.” On Sunday, February 4, he and pianist Julius Drake will perform the work at Lydia Mendelssohn Theater.

It is unlikely that anyone has ever devoted more time and lifeblood to Winterreise than Bostridge or matched his ability and willingness to step away from traditional concert protocol into more radical experimentation with it. In 1997 Bostridge and Drake collaborated with filmmaker David Alden in a haunting adaptation, filmed inside a carefully constructed replica of an abandoned English madhouse. Crouched in a corner, sprawled on the floor, or wandering about, he seemed to be singing while trapped between the pages of a Henry James novel. 

In 2012, Bostridge’s performance of Winterreise was well received at the first International Samuel Beckett Festival in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. Beckett, it seems, was uncommonly fond of the work as a tuneful exercise in absurdity and existential alienation. In 2016, Bostridge sang in Hans Zender’s multimedia chamber ensemble adaptation of the Schubert cycle at London’s Barbican Theatre. In light of all this, it seems appropriate that Bostridge, also an accomplished historian and educator, has written a book called Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession. 

Before performing Winterreise, Bostridge undergoes an inner transformation as he prepares to plunge once again into the alternate reality of the song cycle that has shaped his entire artistic life. You can see it in his face and body language and hear it in his voice. Audience members, sitting entranced in the darkened theater, may find themselves drifting toward the exits after the performance feeling profoundly altered.

No one should expect to be entertained by Schubert’s Winter Journey. That’s not what it’s there for, and not what it’s about. I say this as a veteran of avant-garde theater. Federico García Lorca and Antonin Artaud taught me that in the final analysis, art is a matter of life and death. Most really challenging modern art has the power to dispel comfortable illusions, causing audiences to feel vulnerable. And Schubert, as it turns out, was surprisingly modern in his own way.

Bostridge has uncovered a staggering body of historical context for how and why Schubert set these poems by Wilhelm Müller to music, creating the composite work that, he says, comes to us like a message in a bottle set afloat in the cultural ocean of 1828. The singer carries that comprehension with him in the marrow of his bones. It shines from his eyes and shapes the contours of his beautiful voice. This winter journey transpires when poet, composer, musicians, and listeners meet at the crossroads of the performance ritual, as each of the twenty-four songs begins to breathe and resonate like a living being.