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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Swansong (Schwanengesang D 957 in an English version by Jeremy Sams) [52:36]
On the River [8:59]
(Auf dem Strom D 943 in an English version by Jeremy Sams)
The Shepherd on the Rock [11:07]
(Der Hirt auf dem Felsen D 965 in an English version by Jeremy Sams)
Sir John Tomlinson (bass)
Sophie Bevan (soprano)
Julian Bliss (clarinet)
Alec Frank-Gemmell (horn)
Christopher Glynn (piano)
rec. 2017/18, St Silas Church, Kentish Town, London
English text included

A few months ago, I reviewed the first recording of Winter Journey, an English version of Winterreise by Jeremy Sams. Sams had been commissioned by Christopher Glynn to provide new English translations of the two great Schubert song cycles plus the posthumous collection, Schwanengesang. Although it would always be my preference to hear Lieder sung in German, especially when listening at home with the text and translation readily to hand, I can certainly appreciate the case for using the vernacular, especially in the recital room, to maximise communication with the audience. After listening a few times to the English version of Winterreise I came to the view that, one or two minor reservations aside, Jeremy Sams’ translation worked very well. Similarly, I think his English rendition of Schwanengesang is pretty successful.

I hope I’ll be forgiven if I repeat a point I made in the earlier review, which remains relevant, I think. In taking up the challenge of Christopher Glynn’s commission, Sams needed to produce an English version that stays faithful at least to the spirit if not the letter of the original German poems and one, moreover, that makes good sense when sung and which adheres as closely as possible to Schubert’s vocal line. As was the case with Winter Journey, I think Sams has succeeded with Swansong and he’s done so without taking great liberties with Schubert’s vocal line.

To fill out the disc we hear two more Schubert songs in translations by Sams. Both of them are substantial and each contains an important instrumental obbligato. The songs are entrusted to Sophie Bevan. In On the River (Auf dem Strom) she produces lovely sound and her delivery of the song is committed. Unfortunately, I found that her diction was often far from clear, even though I was following in the booklet. That rather seems to defeat the point of singing in the vernacular. She has a marvellous instrumental partner in Alec Frank-Gemmell, who plays the horn part with golden tone. In The Shepherd on the Rock (Der Hirt auf dem Felsen) another superb instrumentalist is on hand to do the honours. Julian Bliss is splendid, both in the long, bitter-sweet lyrical passages and, later in the athletic music. Sophie Bevan’s performance is similar to what she offered in the previous song: the tone is beautiful but it’s not always easy to hear the words. She displays fine empathy with Schubert’s music, though, not least in the central minor-key episode, which she makes genuinely touching.

Sir John Tomlinson is a distinguished artist. However, each time I’ve listened to him in these songs I’ve felt that he was not the right choice for this assignment. For one thing, his voice is too big and so, for example, at the start of ‘By the Sea’ (‘Am Meer’) I had the distinct impression that he was working hard simply to rein in his voice. Some songs are well suited to him. As you might expect, ‘Der Atlas’ receives a huge performance, the effect enhanced because the low key means that Christopher Glynn’s piano part is often very bass-rich. ‘My Home’ (‘Aufenthalt’) suits him quite well, too – and certainly a lot better than the preceding ‘Serenade’ – more of that in a moment. In ‘Doppelgänger’ – Sams retains the German title - Tomlinson matches the really hushed tension of Glynn’s playing at the start of the song. Later on, his delivery is full of anguished intensity but the song can take it.

However, I’m afraid there are far more songs to which Tomlinson seems unsuited, at least at this relatively late stage in his career. In ‘Love Message’ (‘Liebesbotschaft’) he spins a good legato line but the word I’ve scribbled down in my notes to describe how the delivery of the song comes across is “portly”. In some ways ‘The Warrior’s Foreboding’ (‘Kriegers Ahnung’) can work well with a big voice but Tomlinson sounds lugubrious at the start and later on he rather overpowers both the song and the listener. In ‘Longing for Spring’ (‘Frühlingssehnsucht’) his voice lacks the lightness of touch that the song needs, especially when he sings the questions at the end of each stanza. As for the celebrated ‘Serenade’, it seemed to me that Tomlinson was trying too hard to be expressive whilst fining down his voice at the same time. The result lacks the melancholic charm that the song needs; frankly, it sounds like an older man’s serenade. Again, in ‘The Fisher Maiden’ I found it hard to escape the impression that the song was being sung by a kindly old gent, rather than by the eager young man who both Heine and Schubert surely envisioned.

I’m sorry that I can’t give more of a welcome to this performance by such a distinguished singer. Others may well hear the performances differently and like them more than I did. For me, the bottom line is that there’s an unfortunate mismatch between singer and repertoire. It’s rather a case of Wotan meets Schubert and the results aren’t ideal. Given that the whole idea of Christopher Glynn’s project was to facilitate direct communication of the text between singer and listener I should say that Tomlinson’s diction is consistently good though, to my ears, there’s something of a tendency for the voice to spread on vowels that follow certain consonants.

Christopher Glynn’s piano playing throughout the songs is exemplary and stylish. His instrument has been recorded in very good balance to both singers and the two instrumental obbligato players are also ideally balanced.

John Quinn

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