RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Schwanengesang D.957 [54:14]
Auf dem Strom D.943* [9:51]
Die Sterne D.939 [3:20]
Mark Padmore (tenor); Paul Lewis (piano); *Richard Watkins (French horn)
rec. October 2010, Air Studios, Lyndhurst Hall, London. DDD
German texts and English & French translations included
HARMONIA MUNDI HMU 907520 [67:25]
This CD follows up the very fine versions by Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis of Die Schöne Müllerin (review) and Winterreise (review). Their achievement here seems to be no less great than in the two previous releases. As before, one of the key factors in the excellence of these Schubert performances is that here we have two musicians, both of them distinguished soloists in their own right, working in genuine partnership. Indeed, I was struck by the fact that two of the finest previous recordings of Schwanengesang that I know, those by Peter Schreier (Decca, 1989) and Matthias Goerne (Decca, 2003), have in common with this new release the presence of a noted virtuoso pianist - respectively András Schiff and Alfred Brendel. Those great pianists bring significant insights to the interpretation of this collection of songs, as does Paul Lewis.
Unlike Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, Schwanengesang is not a song cycle. Rather, it is a collection of fourteen songs assembled and published after the composer’s death by the publisher, Tobias Haslinger. The collection comprises seven settings of poems by Ludwig Rellstab (1799-1860), six by Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) and, tacked on at the end somewhat incongruously, one by Johann Gabriel Seidl (1804-1875). Here Padmore and Lewis present the songs in their conventional order. I say that because on their often-revelatory disc Schreier and Schiff not only alter the usual ordering of both the Rellstab and Heine groups but they also include an extra song within the Rellstab group and, for good measure, make Seidl’s ‘Der Taubenpost’ the first of a group of four settings of his poems by Schubert.
The Rellstab settings come first. Right from the outset Padmore and Lewis set out their stall in ‘Liebesbotschaft’. Lewis’s playing has a delightful fluency while Padmore’s delivery is easy and light and there’s splendid clarity of diction - and, so far as I can judge, his German pronunciation is excellent. I love the delicacy with which both performers deliver the fourth stanza in particular, demonstrating that in many ways this song takes us back to Die Schöne Müllerin. The perfect weighting by Lewis of the chords in the introduction to ‘Kriegers Ahnung’ creates a sense of foreboding and paves the way for singing by Padmore that is often daring in its expressiveness - sample the hushed tone in which he delivers the second line of the first stanza. There’s a tremendous sense of atmosphere created in this song, due in no small measure to the care that Padmore takes over the words.
The famous ‘Ständchen’ is performed in a graceful, relaxed vein, yet a sense of melancholy is never far away. Lewis’s gentle accompaniment delightfully suggests a guitar on which the serenading singer might have accompanied himself. For the most part Padmore’s delivery is again light and easeful but, rightly, he displays more urgency and passion in the penultimate stanza. There’s vivid drama in ‘Aufenhalt’ - the title is translated in the booklet as ‘Resting Place’ but there’s no repose here. ‘In der Ferne’ is also intense, though in a different way. Paul Lewis shows marvellous attention to detail in this song, especially in the third stanza; as so often in this collection of songs his playing is really insightful. The last of the Rellstab group, ‘Abschied’, takes us back to the world of Die Schöne Müllerin. On the surface the music seems almost light hearted but, of course, there are deeper feelings below the surface. I love not only the lightness and momentum that Lewis brings to the piano part but also his subtle use of rubato. Padmore’s singing is irresistible, especially his effortless top notes.
With the Heine group we move into deeper waters. In several of these songs we can see Schubert going even beyond the expressive and musical range of Winterreise and pointing very firmly towards the language of mid- and late-nineteenth century romanticism. ‘Der Atlas’ is a case in point. Though the piano introduction is brief it comes across here with great power in Lewis’s hands - I prefer his more sustained way with the music to the way Schiff treats it; Lewis gives the music more breadth. Both Lewis and Padmore bring impressive histrionic power to this song. Padmore may not quite match the rhetorical bitterness of Schreier but he’s not far off.
‘Die Stadt’ is another remarkable song. I was enormously impressed by the suspenseful piano introduction; the little washes of watery sound in the right hand - a recurrent device in this song - are chilling. Padmore’s mysterious, daringly hushed singing matches the vision of his partner and then the declamatory power they bring to the third stanza is all the more effective in contrast to what has gone before. ‘Am Meer’ is just as fine. The piano introduction consists of a mere two chords, quietly sounded twice, yet the way Lewis plays them is suggestive of a vast horizon. Padmore sings the pensive first and third stanzas with excellent control, phrasing in long, sustained lines. The poem - and the music - conveys more inner turmoil in the second and fourth stanzas and Padmore’s response is judged to perfection.
‘Der Doppelgänger’ is an extraordinary song and it receives a riveting reading from these two perceptive artists. The short introduction has been described by the critic Alex Ross as “an acutely unnerving progression in B minor in which each chord has been lobotomized by the surgical removal of one essential note. These chords draw a picture of a walking corpse.” Lewis plays this passage enthrallingly, achieving a depth and profundity of sonority that creates a potent atmosphere. His erstwhile teacher, Brendel, is even more hushed on the Goerne account (a live recording taken from performances at the Wigmore Hall) but I don’t think he matches Lewis’s depth of tone. Both pianists make the music sound glacial. The tempo is daringly slow, as is that taken by Goerne and Brendel - and it’s noticeable that Schreier and Schiff, who are also superbly expressive, take a whole minute less over the song. However, Padmore and Lewis sustain the line of the song magnificently, even at this slow pace, and the tension in the performance is palpable. In their hands the first stanza has an eerie stillness and then they rack up the tension significantly in the second stanza. Padmore is searingly intense, even if in the middle lines of the third stanza he doesn’t choose to harden his tone in the Loge-like way that Schreier does. The last line is superbly delivered. ‘So manche Nacht’ sounds as if the words have been wrenched from him and then he displays superb control, easing the dynamic downwards on ‘in alter Zeit?’
In some ways I’ve never felt less like hearing ‘Die Taubenpost’ than after this account of ‘Der Doppelgänger’. It’s always struck me as an odd appendage to the collection, almost as if Haslinger didn’t dare leave listeners with the searing emotion and bleak despair of that final Heine setting and wanted the last impression to be that of the genial Schubert. It’s interesting to note that in their recording Schreier and Schiff end the Heine group not with ‘Der Doppelgänger’ but with ‘Der Atlas’. Even more revealingly, Goerne and Brendel seem to have presented ‘Die Taubenpost’ to their Wigmore Hall audience as an encore because there’s applause after ‘Der Doppelgänger’. For domestic listening one can always hit the pause button and in any event Padmore and Lewis give a winning account of ‘Die Taubenpost’. Crucially, although the setting may be more charming and overtly innocent than the preceding songs they pay it the compliment of lavishing on it the same attention to detail. Once again Lewis includes some delectable little touches of rubato while Padmore’s care for the words is as evident as always. By comparison Schreier and Schiff, at a fleeter tempo, are more straightforward and less interventionist in their performance. That’s highly appropriate in many ways but I relish the additional insights of Padmore and Lewis.
To complete the disc Padmore and Lewis offer two further late Schubert settings. Auf dem Strom is an extended setting of another Rellstab poem in which the texture is embellished by the addition of a substantial horn part, superbly played here by Richard Watkins. Padmore’s plangent tone is an ideal foil to the ripely romantic sound of the horn. Finally, Padmore and Lewis take their leave of us with a beguiling reading of Die Sterne. This genial setting is, arguably, echt-Schubert and the lightness of touch displayed by both singer and pianist result in a winning performance.
This disc rounds off this Schubert series superbly. This magnificent reading of Schwanengesang is one of the best I’ve heard and it’s a worthy companion to the two preceding discs. Both the singing and the pianism are of the very highest quality and the recorded sound is splendid. Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis may have finished their Schubert traversal - though some further recordings of individual songs would be more than welcome - but I sincerely hope we haven’t heard the last of them as a recital partnership.
Masterwork Index: Schwanengesang
A magnificent reading of Schwanengesang.