This record groups together the last songs of Schubert
and Brahms, though I think it would be over-ingenious to find any particular
points of resemblance between them other than that. Readers who are
still exploring the world of the lied should know that "Swansong"
was not Schubertís title but the publisherís (the songs came out posthumously).
Nor do the songs form a cycle by telling a story as Die schöne
Müllerin and Winterreise do. They consist in fact of
two groupings and a single song Ė 7 songs texts by Rellstab, 6 with
texts by Heine, plus Die Taubenpost. It is worth remembering
that to group songs together according to the poet set was in itself
a new departure for Schubert, and maybe for the lied generally. The
Rellstab group revisits familiar Schubertian images of brooks and fields,
all suffused with the deepest longing for a distant beloved. The terrain
may be familiar from other works by Schubert yet it perhaps finds its
sublimest expression here. The encounter with Heine took Schubert into
unprecedented dramatic territory. The two groups are therefore unrelated
but perhaps Schubert felt each complemented the other since he offered
them to a publisher together as a cycle. The publisher, as said above,
brought them out the year following Schubertís death under the title
that has remained ever since and added to them Pigeon Post, Schubertís
last song of all. This relatively light-hearted piece sits strangely
after the Heine settings, but in a fine performance it can impress as
a bittersweet remembrance of happier times.
Brahmsís Four Serious Songs was his last completed
opus, though his op. 122, the 11 Chorale Preludes for organ, lacked
only the last refinements of dynamics and so is not really to be considered
an "unfinished" work. As a Bible student Brahms was as sturdily
independent as he was as a musician. The final song sets St. Paulís
great text, "Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels
Ö" but in the others he shows an awareness of the remoter corners
of the sacred books, including the Apocrypha, seeking out passages which
speak of the bitterness of death and the transience of life. This sounds
pretty grim, yet in the hands of an artist like Kathleen Ferrier these
songs have brought consolation to generations of listeners.
Thomas Quasthoff has a growing reputation and proves
a natural lieder singer. His voice is an attractive one, warm and sonorous.
Its lower range seems not great Ė the low Aflat in the first part of
In der Ferne disappears long before its written length has been
exhausted. Why not sing this sing this song a semitone higher? His upper
range is firm and rounded. One or two piano Fs are sung with a trace
of head voice but this seems a choice rather than a necessity and by
and large he makes little recourse to this dubious practice. Sometimes
in long notes his tone begins a little huskily and acquires its true
colour later Ė certain vowels seem to provoke this. Examples can be
found in Aufenthalt with the words Tränen and brausender.
His singing of the first page of Der Doppelgänger is really
too exaggeratedly pianissimo. I donít know what anybody would hear in
the concert hall Ė even the microphone has difficulty in picking anything
Still, these are small matters. Unfortunately I have
a whole sheet of gripes about the pianist. The demi-semiquavers of Liebesbotschaft
are not clear. This is not Debussy and Schubert requires transparency.
The chords on the third beat of most bars in the outer sections of Kriegers
Ahnung are quavers followed by a quaver rest but they are not actually
staccato and Zeyen bumps them unmusically. The rests at the beginning
of In der Ferne are not always counted out correctly. When the
triplets start on the second page of Der Atlas the rhythm becomes
clear only after two or three bars. In the chords which pervade Die
Stadt (the figure is heard for the first time in bar 3) the middle
notes are stronger than the upper note not just once, which might be
an accident, but every time, which begins to look like carelessness,
as Oscar Wilde would have said. Yet the point of Schubertís accents
is surely that the falling octave is to be heard melodically. All this
pales into insignificance before what happens in Ständchen.
The quavers are chunky, but let that pass. At the end of the singerís
first phrase, which Quasthoff rightly sings very simply, the piano echoes
his last two bars. ECHOES, I said. But no, Zeyen inserts a big expressive
comma, as though to say, "Listen chaps, now IíM going to do it",
then he splits his right hand chord and plays the phrase with lavish
Cho-pansy rubato. This is outright vulgarity and is in itself enough
to exclude the disc from any serious consideration.
In view of this it is hardly worth adding that Die
Taubenpost is actually rather enjoyable and the more generalised
romantic pianism of Brahms suits Zeyen better. But put on that Ferrier
record and you will immediately hear a tingle factor which Quasthoffís
well-schooled singing just canít match. The message is all in the last
song. Ferrier could sing with the tongues of men and angels but she
also had that extra quality which might be called love or compassion
and which somehow brings a lump to the listenerís throat many, many
times during the performance. The trouble is that if you can only sing
with the tongues of men, you can sing quite nicely about birds and bees
and flowers, but songs like this will not yield up their secrets and
will only match E. M. Forsterís description of them in "Howardís
End" as "grumbling and grizzling".
There is no shortage of famous versions of Schwanengesang
and youíd be better off with any of them. Itís getting to be a stale
truism, but if youíre new to lieder youíre still safest with Fischer-Dieskau.
Melanie Eskenasi thinks totally differently