Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Schwanengesang, D957 [57:18]
Die Forelle, D550 [2:01]
Auf der Bruck, D853 [3:34]
Gruppe aus dem Tartarus, second version, D583 (Schiller) [3:07]
An die Musik, D547 [2:42]
James Rutherford (baritone) & Eugene Asti (piano)
rec. January 2015, Potton Hall, Saxmundham, Suffolk, UK
BIS BIS-2180 SACD [69:48]
Schubert’s Schwanengesang here contains an extra song, Herbst D945. That song was not published as part of the posthumous compilation that Haslinger brought out and called “Swan Song”, but is another Rellstab setting from Schubert’s last year, as are the first seven songs of the original publication. Herbst was lost at that stage, as the only copy was written into a friend’s autograph album, and not rediscovered until the end of the 19th century. It might even have been a try-out for Aufenthalt which sits fifth in the published sequence, and which it resembles. Herbst follows that song on this disc, since as the baritone claims in the booklet “it is sometimes included in performance.” I don’t think it matters very much, but I have a slight preference for the cycle as it was first published. As Martin Chusid observes in his fine book on the cycle, “Whereas Herbst is a very good song, Aufenthalt is superb.”
That is not the only point of textual interest in this Schwanengesang. In preparing the work baritone James Rutherford and pianist Eugene Asti had to decide what keys to put these (originally high voice) songs in, and decided to put every song down a minor third, preserving the key relations at least. They even claim this might be the first time on disc this has been done (but one would need to listen to an awful lot of recordings to be quite sure). Of course this deepens and darkens the songs, which suits some more than others, the heavier songs like Der Atlas and Die Stadt tending to sound very imposing in these keys. And although BIS describe Rutherford as a baritone, he sounds more of a bass-baritone here. But then he has sung Hans Sachs at Bayreuth and Vienna, and the cast list in my score of Die Meistersinger says simply “Hans Sachs – Bass”.
The opening song Liebesbotschaft lacks a certain tripping lightness, but the next one Kreigers Ahnung suits Rutherford’s very fine voice perfectly, and one notices his impeccable German diction from the start. The third song, Frühlingssehnsucht shows that his large voice can deploy a lighter manner, and he really relishes the text. Ständchen, is the best known of all these songs and benefits here from a restrained but still ardent treatment. Following Aufenthalt with Herbst feels slightly like viewing a sketch after the finished painting, but both songs are so well done it seems churlish to complain. With the long (six minutes), slow and anguished In der Ferne the low voice makes its mark, as does the pianist in Abschied, with just the right tempo - a canter, not a gallop, that allows the singer to articulate the text. The performance of the Heine songs in the second part are if anything even more successful than the Rellstab ones, reaching a powerful climax with the rising hysteria of Der Dopplegänger. A properly charming account of the last song Schubert ever wrote, Die Taubenpost, closes a very satisfying version of Schwanengesang.
The four extra songs filling the disc are all favourites, and all are well sung and played. The SACD sound is excellent, and the useful booklet notes are by the distinguished American Schubert scholar Susan Youens, no less. But of course Schwanengesang is the main thing, and there are many fine accounts to choose from. If you want Herbst embedded in the cycle, and in a really fine performance, then it is included by Goerne in both of his splendid versions (Decca and Harmonia Mundi), and by Schreier (Decca), but Fischer-Dieskau (DG), Bostridge (Warner), and Gerhaher (Arte Nova) omit it. Of the few women to record the cycle, Fassbaender (DG) has it in but Stutzman (Erato) does not. The best solution might be that of Holzmair (Decca) and Pregardien (Challenge) who add it to the CD as an extra, but not within the cycle, which also happens on the last volume (No.37) of the Hyperion/Graham Johnson version. That has the two parts of the cycle shared between two tenors, John Mark Ainsley and Anthony Rolfe Johnson. There are now so many good recordings of this cycle – all of those mentioned above are worth hearing, and several are worth owning. Goerne on Decca (live, with Brendel) is still my choice of the lower voice options, and Bostridge among the tenors. Fassbaender’s disc is a quite exceptional performance. But the long list of those worth really hearing now includes this fine version too.