Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
An die ferne Geliebte, Op. 98 (1816) [13:49]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Schwanengesang, D957 [53:35]
James Gilchrist (tenor); Anna Tilbrook (piano)
rec. 13-14 May 2010, Potton Hall, Suffolk
German texts and English translations included

Last year I reviewed a recording of Die schöne Müllerin by these same artists and although I had some reservations, mainly interpretative, I found much to enjoy. This follow-up release offers another example of this fine tenor in the lieder repertoire and singing songs that quite clearly mean a lot to him.

He writes in an interesting booklet essay that An die ferne Geliebte is a work that he’s known since his school days; it was one of the first pieces in the song repertoire that he properly learned. As a concert artist with significant experience behind him, he has committed his interpretation to disc. He gives a fine performance. In the first song his light, easy tone is just right for the young man’s wistful recollection of the first meeting with his beloved. Gilchrist leans into a few notes for emphasis and he judges this effect with discrimination. Later, in the third song, ‘Lecht Segler in den Höhen’, he and pianist Anna Tilbrook invest the music with the right degree of lightness – their crisp rhythms help here and in the following song. Finally, as Beethoven reverts to a slower tempo for the last song, ‘Nimm sie hin denn, diese lieder’, Gilchrist’s legato line is winningly spun. There’s a very fine use of head voice at the line ‘Hinter jener Bergeshöh’ and he brings a compelling urgency to the final stanza.

In some of his vocal writing – one thinks of the Ninth Symphony and Missa Solemnis – Beethoven’s vocal writing is, at times, downright inconsiderate to the human voice. There’s none of that in An die ferne Geliebte. The vocal line lies nicely at all times and these songs are grateful, rather than punishing, to sing. The cycle suits James Gilchrist’s voice admirably and his vocal timbre seems very well suited to Beethoven’s music.

He also seems thoroughly at home in Schwanengesang. His light, somewhat sappy tone is well suited to the wistful melancholy of ‘Ständchen’ – he delivers this celebrated song with fine feeling. He’s also well suited to ‘Liebesbotschaft’ and ‘Frülingssehnsucht’ for the same reason. But what impresses even more is the intensity that he brings to some of the other songs. In ‘Die Stadt’ the intensity is achieved through a glacial tone at the start and, by way of contrast, much more histrionic power for the third stanza. More “conventional” intensity is achieved in a song such as ‘Der Atlas’, for which Gilchrist has the necessary rhetorical power, and he invests ‘Aufenthalt’ with both power and anguish.

I greatly admired the dynamic range he employs in ‘Der Doppelgänger’. He gives an extraordinarily intense and expertly controlled reading of this gaunt, bleak song. Equally admirable is the restraint with which he sings ‘Ihr Bild’; that quality of restraint is highly appropriate to this concentrated, spare song.

I’ve never been sure about ‘Die Taubenpost’. It sits oddly with many of the preceding songs, and especially as an envoi to the collection. One wonders why Tobias Haslinger tacked it on to the remainder of the collection when publishing Schwanengesang after Schubert’s death. Maybe he was wary of rounding off this collection of songs with the bleak vision of ‘Der Doppelgänger’. As it is, the bitter-sweet, light song that is ‘Die Taubenpost’ does seem at odds with much of what has preceded it. On the other hand, it serves to emphasise that Schwanengesang is a not a cycle but a collection – and not one made by the composer. Gilchrist sings the song delightfully and Anna Tilbrook, whose piano playing has been exemplary throughout the preceding thirteen songs – and, indeed, in the Beethoven - accompanies with a lovely touch.

This is a most enjoyable and rewarding recital. The performances are consistently excellent and both the recorded sound and the documentation are very good. With Die schöne Müllerin and Schwanengesang now both safely ‘in the can’ will James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook go on to record Winterreise? I hope so.

John Quinn

Masterwork Index: Schwanengesang

A most enjoyable and rewarding recital disc.