Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Schwanengesang, D.957 [50:04]
Herbst, D.945 [3:47]
Der Winterabend, D.938 [8:15]
Christopher Maltman (baritone); Graham Johnson (piano)
rec. live, 20 April 2010, Wigmore Hall, London. DDD
German texts and English translations included
The Wigmore Hall Live label has already issued CDs of outstanding performances by Christopher Maltman and Graham Johnson of Die schöne Müllerin (review) and Winterreise (review). I was impressed by both recordings and so I was delighted when a copy of the third and final release in this mini-series arrived for review.
The more I hear Schubert’s three song cycles - and I hope readers will excuse me if, for ease of reference, I refer thus to Schwanengesang; I know it’s not a true song cycle - the more I prefer them when sung by a tenor in the original high keys. Somehow this seems appropriate to the poems, to the music and to the fact that all the songs were the creations of a young man. That said, my ears are far from closed to lower voices in these songs and especially not when the singer in question is as persuasive a singer as Christopher Maltman.
The opening song, ‘Liebesbotschaft’, illustrates a number of what, by the end of the performance, will be seen to be important characteristics. Maltman’s tone is firm and well- focused; there’s evident care for the words. A definite partnership and shared understanding between himself and Graham Johnson is readily apparent. The tempo, while far from sluggish, is relaxed - here Maltman and Johnson refuse to be hurried and we shall find this tendency in several other songs as the performance unfolds.
I like the imaginative way that Maltman deploys vocal colouring, often lightening his tone for expressive ends. This is noticeable in ‘Kriegers Ahnung’, for instance. Appropriately, after ‘Liebesbotschaft’, he switches to a darker timbre for the first stanza of this second song, then the tone is lighter, the mood more wistful in the next verse before darker hues return.
The performance of the famous ‘Ständchen’ is steady and sounds somewhat autumnal while the reading of ‘Aufenthalt’ is, as Hilary Finch comments in the booklet, “darkly introspective”. Maltman takes this song at a steadier pace than I’ve heard in some performances. Furthermore, he contains the emotions - very effectively. The reading is not as overtly dramatic as one sometimes hears but at the end of the fourth stanza there’s the requisite vocal and emotional power. I’ve heard some singers make ‘Abschied’ sound relatively carefree but Maltman isn’t one of them. I particularly liked his gentle, rather wistful way with the fourth and sixth stanzas.

On to the deeper Heine settings, starting with ‘Der Atlas’. This is powerfully done but not in an excessive way: Maltman displays defiance in an impressive account of the song. In the following song, ’Ihr Bild’ the mood he strikes is one of withdrawn regret. His well- controlled singing makes the passion with which he invests the last line all the more effective.
‘Am Meer’ is given a magnetic performance. Here, the way Maltman uses the upper register of his voice is very impressive, especially in the first and third stanzas. Equally impressive is his control of the line. The four quiet piano chords that introduce ‘Der Doppelgänger’ are full of foreboding. Both performers invest the first stanza with a sense of oppressive stillness. They make the following verse terrifically tense without any unnecessary histrionics and then, as the song reaches its dénouement there’s just the right level of intensity. ‘Die Taubenpost’ is given a reading that, on the surface, is relaxed and lyrical. It’s a subtle performance and it’s tinged with that sense of ‘sehnsucht’ which finally comes out in the final stanza, especially the second time round.
There are two encores. First Maltman and Johnson offer another Rellstab setting, ‘Herbst’. Hilary Finch comments that this song is often sung as an encore to Schwanengesang; indeed, I recall that Peter Schreier and András Schiff actually inserted the song into the Rellstab group on their CD of Schwanengesang. It’s done with fine expression by Christopher Maltman. The second extra item is quite substantial for an encore; the performance of ‘Die Winterabend’ takes over seven minutes. This is a song from 1827 to which Graham Johnson provides an excellent spoken introduction, stressing the idea of ‘sehnsucht’ that links back to Schwanengesang. It’s a gentle, wistful song and the performance is lovely: Maltman once again sings with fine, even tone and shows his ability to spin a long vocal line while Graham Johnson’s accompaniment seems absolutely right in every respect.
The first two volumes in this Schubert mini-series were extremely satisfying and the final instalment is no less rewarding. On these three CDs Christopher Maltman confirms that he is one of the most impressive baritone exponents of art songs currently before the public and, of course, he is partnered by one of the finest accompanists of our day, one who is steeped in Schubert’s lieder. Though there are many excellent CD versions of Schwanengesang in the catalogue this one joins the ranks of the very best.
The concert at which this recording was made was reviewed for MusicWeb International Seen and Heard by Mark Berry.
John Quinn

Masterwork Index: Schwanengesang
There are many excellent CD versions of Schwanengesang in the catalogue but this one joins the ranks of the very best.