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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Schwanengesang, D957 (1827-28)
Florian Boesch (baritone); Malcolm Martineau (piano)
rec. March 2014, All Saint’s Church, East Finchley, London
German texts and English translations included
ONYX 4131 [66:36]

I’ve already greatly admired the recordings of Die schöne Müllerin (review) and Winterreise (review) that Florian Boesch and Malcolm Martineau have given us. I’m particularly pleased now to have Boesch’s recording of Schwanengesang because it was in this collection of songs that I first heard him live; that was in a Cheltenham Festival performance a few years ago (review).

I’ve deliberately listed all the songs in the order in which they’re sung on this disc (see below). A number of things will be apparent. Firstly, a group of five songs, all to poems by Goethe, is placed between the Rellstab and Heine settings. In my experience such an interpolation is pretty unusual on disc. Secondly, the songs that comprise Schwanengesang are not offered in the published order – though Boesch is far from alone in that respect. Looking back I see that the songs were sung in this same order in Cheltenham in 2008 but on that occasion they were done all together – with a pause after Kriegers Ahnung. Finally, many Schubert lovers will be surprised to see that Die Taubenpost is missing entirely – at the Cheltenham performance it was included, but only as an encore.

It’s not entirely clear why these decisions have been taken. The notes by Richard Stokes are useful commentaries on the songs but, beyond mentioning that both the Rellstab and Heine groups are sung in an order which is different to the published ordering, Mr Stokes is silent on this point. A note, perhaps from Boesch himself, covering this issue, the omission of Die Taubenpost and the interpolation of the Goethe group woiuld have been most illuminating. There’s no reason why the songs that comprise Schwanengesang should not be presented in this manner: they don’t form a cycle that tells a story and were asembled as a posthumous collection by Schubert’s publisher. Had Schubert lived longer the songs might have come down to us in a different guise or as two completely separate groups.

However, the omission of Die Taubenpost is regrettable. From the fact that he treated it as an encore in the aforementioned 2008 recital it would seem that Boesch has a problem over finishing the set by singing it. In some ways I’m not surprised for at first sight – or hearing – it sits rather oddly with the deeply introspective Heine songs that precede it in the published volume. Furthermore it can seem rather jaunty or simply charming. However, the way that some singers deliver it has convinced me that the superficial charm is misplaced; there should be a sense of bittersweet longing . I particularly notice this when I hear an artist like Mark Padmore sing it on disc (review) or, even more so, live (review). I think it would have been nice if Florian Boesch had included the song as an appendix on the disc, for which there would have been room.

His renditions of the thirteen songs that he has included are very fine. He has a firm and extremely well-focused voice. Moreover there’s a slight edge to the tone. I hasten to add that I mean that in a wholly complimentary way. The edge just adds to the focus and it’s especially effective when he’s delivering powerful, dramatic music. He has a very wide dynamic range at his disposal which he controls expertly while his palette of vocal colouring is wide ranging and applied with perception. Clearly he has established a formidable partnership with Malcolm Martineau who here, once again, proves himself to be a perceptive master of Schubertian style. Time and again his approach to the piano part, even down to the placement of an individual chord, adds illumination and interest.

Though on balance I prefer to hear a tenor voice in the two Müller cycles, when it comes to Schwanengesang there’s a great deal to be said for a low voice and the darker timbres associated with transposition to the lower keys. The Rellstab settings can feel less intense than the Heine group but that’s not always the case here. True, Boesch adopts a relatively light style for the first couple of songs. However, when he reaches the famous Ständchen charm, while not banished, takes second place to a mood of melancholy and in fact there’s desperation followed by resignation in the last stanza. Abschied can seem cheerful, the never-motionless piano part suggesting the wheels of a coach-and-four bowling along. However, Boesch makes sure we’re under no illusions; this is a regretful farewell. In der Ferne is darkly powerful, even oppressive and the delivery of the second stanza is particuarly heartfelt, as is the very end of the song. As for Kriegers Ahnung, Boesch leaves us in no doubt as to its tragic stature. Martineau’s projection of the opening is dark and intense, ushering in a dramatic account of the song.

By ordering the Rellstab group in this way Florian Boesch gradually ratchets up the intensity, paving the way more than usual for the great Heine settings to follow. In some ways it’s a pity to break the spell with the Goethe group but we must respect the integrity of Boesch‘s programming.

Prometheus is, as Richard Stokes points out, a Sturm und Drang poem and Schubert sets it to music of a similar vein. This is a very dramatic reading of the song. In the three Gesänge des Harfners I especially admired the refined lighter voice that Boesch deploys for the quiet end of Wer sich die Einsamkeit ergibt and he gives a marvellously nuanced account of Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen aß, the finest and most deeply felt of the set.

Back to Schwanengesang and the Heine settings. It was in these songs above all that I relished the quality of gravitas that Boesch often brings to his voice. He shows fine delicacy in Das Fischermädchen. Continuing the maritime assciations Am Meer is placed next. At the very start the sea may appear calm but it’s soon clear that this calm is deceptive – still waters run deep. Boesch and Martineau invest the first and third verses with spellbinding concentration while the other two stanzas are significantly more unsettled. Ihr Bild is magnificent, both as song and performance. Schubert’s music is spare and bleak and both he and the present performers use great economy of means to express much.

The final three songs, as presented here, are towering, both as compositions and performances. In Die Stadt Martineau distils a potent atmosphere in the way he plays those otherworldly swirls. The degree of concentration that both performers bring to this song is remarkable. Boesch‘s subdued singing is riveting, which then underlines the contrast with the much more powerful third stanza. Der Doppelgänger is no less remarkable. At the start Malcolm Martineau voices and weights those ominous, subdued chords, each one of them pregnant with tension and foreboding. Great tension is generated by both musicians and the gripping intensity of their interpretation builds incrementally until the final phrases seem to be wrung from Boesch’s very being. Even more than all the performances that have gone before in this recital this one demonstrates fantastic control, imagination and use of colour. Both singer and pianist invest Der Atlas with full histrionic power. Theirs is a very dramatic, searing reading and whilst I fully respect the decision over Die Taubenpost part of me wishes it were here to provide a release valve and bring the listener back down to earth.

This is now the fourth Schubert disc by Florian Boesch that I’ve heard: there have been the Onyx discs plus a recital for Hyperion (review). All four have impressed me greatly. Here is an extremely accomplished and perceptive Schubertian. Anyone who has already acquired his recordings of Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise will need no encouragement from me to add this Schwanengesang to their collection. However, if you are a lover of Lieder and have yet to experience this fine artist in Schubert then I urge you to investigate his artistry without delay; this new disc would be a good place to start.

John Quinn

Another review ...

This disc marks the completion of Boesch and Martineau’s perusal of Schubert’s three great song cycles. Unlike the other two, Schwanengesang allows itself to be tampered with due to its lack of an over-arching narrative and the inconvenient fact that the songs weren’t realised as a cycle by Schubert himself. There are lots of attempts on disc to tweak the running order (including this one) and there is, I suppose, nothing wrong with doing so. Boesch’s choice of programme is rather quirky, to say the least, though, and the reasons for his choices are left obscure. He takes all the Rellstab settings together and then, later, the Heine songs. He also leaves out Die Taubenpost altogether, which is, I suppose, understandable because the text wasn’t written by either poet and seems to have been added as an afterthought by Schubert’s publisher. What is less explicable, though is his interpolation of the Goethe sequence between the two. The booklet notes are silent about the reasons for this, so you’ll have to make up your own mind as to whether it works. For the sake of ease, I’ll be — mostly — talking about the songs in the order that they turn up on the disc.

Setting aside the programming, the performances are very good. There is a wonderful rippling motion to Martineau's accompaniment in Liebesbotschaft. Boesch immediately establishes himself as a lied singer of subtlety and sensitivity. He never once pushes the voice, but allows the music to unfold naturally, seeing himself as a partner to the piano, not the main event. This very much increases his attractiveness. The voice itself comes across as dark and serious, but paying uncommon attention to the words and their meanings. This has a big impact, enriching the experience of the listener and very obviously having an impact on the interpretation: Boesch has thought a lot about the songs and their meaning. The last line of each stanza in Frühlingssehnsucht, for example, has a well observed and entirely appropriate questioning character to it, decisively addressed in the final "nur du". There is clever duality at play, too, though. The winsome lilt of Ständchen is undermined by the unsettled nature of Boesch's vocal colour. Similarly, Abschied carries all the bounce of the stereotypical German Wanderlied, but the jollity of the melodic line is undermined by the rather barbed nature of the words. Boesch's dark vocal colour suits this duality very well, especially in the final stanza, which flirts with the minor key for the most serious moments of the song. Aufenthalt, too, is full of typical Romantic nature imagery, but styled with much darker colours than most: this resting place brings the wanderer no comfort. In der Ferne finds itself, for the first time in this arrangement of the cycle, unequivocally in the minor key, and the darkness of the mood is fairly unrelenting, placing the listener at the heart of the poet's, the composer's and the singer's angst. Its unfulfilled yearning for belonging packs a powerful punch here. Boesch's tonal darkness is also perfectly suited to Kriegers Ahnung with its combination of morose foreboding and meditations a love he will never see again.

The Goethe settings seem to increase the disc’s level of seriousness and concentration. Prometheus is exceptionally impressive and, more than any of the preceding Rellstab songs, it sounds as though it had been written specially for Boesch. Its combination of drama, pathos and dark power suits him perfectly, as the Titan raises the voice of individualism against the gods who imprisoned him. It's like Wagner before his time. The three Harper songs are also very fine, No. 2 — here performed third — coming across as the most poignant and heartfelt. Grenzen der Menschheit is also very special, Schubert providing an extraordinary musical structure to match Goethe's meditation on mankind's place in the universe; Boesch seems almost to take on the role of a bard or prophet as he declaims the song's message.

Back in Schwanengesang proper, the ordering of the Heine songs draws us progressively deeper into a world of bleakness and disappointment. It's a very effective decision, though I'm not sure that the melodrama of Atlas makes a good place to finish. The first two songs of love and the sea are lovely, with a particularly beautiful wistfulness to Am Meer, which is perhaps the most purely beautiful thing on the disc, particularly in the way its longing dissolves into disappointment at the end. The final three songs, on the other hand, take us to a much deeper place of suffering and loss that borders on the existential. Martineau's accompaniment of Die Stadt seems to quiver on the edge of atonality, while Boesch seems to intone so bleakly as to underline the message of love lost forever. Der Doppelgänger, likewise, begins with spare chords and Boesch intoning the vocal line so quietly as to barely bring it out. It then builds to an expression of loss that finds its companion in the Gothic horror of Atlas, though ending the disc here is a mistake because it leaves ringing in your ears the sense of melodrama and horror that is not at all characteristic of the cycle as a whole.

Still, that programming quirk alone doesn't undo the good things in what is a very good recital; in fact, a unique take on Schwanengesang, if you’re planning on listening to it from start to finish. Boesch and Martineau are a fine partnership, but I think they yield to Goerne if you’re looking for a recent baritone version of this cycle: that singer's Schubert series is still well ahead of Boesch because of its sensitivity and stunning empathy with each song.

Simon Thompson

Track listing
Liebesbotschaft [2.52]
Frühlingssehnsucht [3.40]
Ständchen [3.26]
Abschied [4.18]
In der Ferne [5.11]
Aufenthalt [2.51]
Kriegers Ahnung [5.04]
Prometheus D674 [4.58 ]
Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt (Harfenspieler I D478) [3.33]
Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen aß (Harfenspieler III D480) [4.16]
An die Türen will ich schleichen (Harfenspieler II D479) [2.12]
Grenzen der Menschheit D716 [6.38]
Das Fischermädchen [2.16]
Am Meer [3.45]
Ihr Bild [2.35]
Die Stadt [2.49]
Der Doppelgänger [4.00]
Der Atlas [2.06]