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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
An die ferne Geliebte, Op 98 (1816) [13:42]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Schwanengesang, D957 (1827-28) [51:26]
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Iain Burnside (piano)
rec. 2019, Potton Hall, Dunwich, UK
German texts and English translations included
CHANDOS CHAN20126 [65:14]

Last year, I reviewed a fine recording of Die schöne Müllerin by these same artists. Now they’ve followed it up by recording the posthumous collection, Schwanengesang. In pairing the Schubert with Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte, Roderick Williams is mirroring the programme of a recital that I attended at the 2019 Chipping Campden Festival. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, that concert was given just over two weeks after the sessions for this CD, though at Chipping Campden the pianist was another of Williams’ regular recital partners, the excellent Susie Allan (review).

An die ferne Geliebte, Beethoven’s short Liederkreis is probably the first composition in the song cycle genre. In it he sets six poems by Alois Isidor Jeitteles (1794-1858). The songs are performed without a break and are linked by short piano interludes. If you play this disc without first reading the booklet you may think that Jonathan Cooper, the engineer, has had an off day at the controls because we hear Roderick Williams slightly in the background and Iain Burnside’s Steinway is foregrounded. Let me hasten to explain that the effect is quite deliberate. As Roderick Williams explains in a note: “the inventiveness of Beethoven is best expressed in the piano writing, while the vocal part is deliberately simple.” In consequence, the decision was taken to record the cycle “almost as if I were singing over Iain’s shoulder”. It’s an interesting and thoughtful effect.

I enjoyed the performance. In the first song, ‘Auf dem Hügel sitz’ ich, spähend’ both artists show great attention to detail, not least in respect of the words, yet this is achieved without any loss of spontaneity. I like the eagerness in both voice and piano at the very end. In the following song, ‘Wo die Berge so blau’ the hushed delivery of the second stanza particularly caught my attention while I relished the lightness of touch that both artists bring to ‘Leichte Segler in den Höhen’. Lightness is also much in evidence in ‘Es kehret der Maien’ and this imparts the zest for Spring that’s expressed in the poem. In the last song, ‘Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder’ Williams and Burnside give a performance that is particularly sensitive to the poem, and to Beethoven’s response to the words. I was especially drawn to the way they deliver the last two stanzas where Beethoven brings An die ferne Geliebte full circle.

In listening to this performance of Schwanengesang two things enhanced my appreciation. One was a note about the music which Roderick Williams has contributed to the Chandos booklet. The other was the opportunity to listen again to an illustrated talk that he gave about the songs on BBC Radio 3 in August 2019. This was the first of a series of three programmes in each of which he focussed on one of the three great cycles. The programme about Schwanengesang came first because that was the first of the three that he learnt. When I first heard that talk, I was astonished to discover that Williams did not essay any of these three wonderful collections of Schubert Lieder until he was invited, well in advance, to perform them all at London’s Wigmore Hall in the 2017/18 season. The process of learning them all, amid all his other commitments, occupied some three years. As Williams disarmingly admits, he had “subtly avoided” these song collections and he expresses regret that he lost so much time when he could have been singing these cornerstones of the repertoire. I get that, but for we listeners the silver lining to that particular cloud is that he has taken them into his repertoire when he’s at the height of his powers as a singer and interpreter.

It’s evident right from the start that this is going to be a very satisfying performance. ‘Liebesbotschaft’ is easy and relaxed. Both singer and pianist articulate the music smoothly and they give themselves all the time they need to craft a subtle, gratifying performance. The listener can’t help but be carried along. In ’Kriegers Ahnung’ I was especially impressed by the lovely easy flow that’s imparted to the second stanza of the poem when the soldier recalls his beloved. The performers present a fine contrast between each of the verses ‘Ständchen’ is an enigmatic song. For sure, it’s a gently beguiling serenade, but the unexpected use of a minor key reveals that this is a more melancholy affair than might have been supposed. In a lovely performance I was struck not just by the mellifluous vocal line but just as much by the way Iain Burnside so perfectly weights the piano part.

Burnside shows his craft again at the start of ‘In der Ferne’ where in an introduction lasting a mere seven bars, he creates a wonderful suspense. This hushed intensity is carried on by both performers. The third stanza has intense yet fluent melancholy. The Rellstab group ends with ‘Abschied’. The performance is very mobile yet the integrity of the musical line is never compromised. Williams’ singing is a delight while Burnside’s alert pianism perfectly evokes a trotting horse. Both musicians bring a delectable lightness of touch to this song.

The Heine group begins potently with ‘Der Atlas’. Here Williams deliberately hardens his tone to excellent effect. Throw in a dark, ominous piano part and you have a big, dramatic account of the song. In his radio talk, Roderick Williams said that he can’t readily think of a better example of the adage “less is more” than ‘Ihr Bild’. He’s right: the song is a mere two pages long and within those pages Schubert uses great economy of means. Yet what expressive detail these artists find there. Listen, for example, to the cavernous, soft piano tone that Burnside conjures up in the seventh bar. On paper it’s a simple song but it makes a great effect here.

‘Die Stadt’ is such an advanced song, even by the standards of the composer of Winterreise. Ian Burnside evokes dark suspense in the piano introduction and these artists never let that tension relax. The bitter despair that Williams brings to the final stanza really strikes the listener forcibly. ‘Am Meer’ benefits from intense concentration on the part of both singer and pianist and then we’re confronted by ‘Der Doppelgänger’. What an extraordinary song this is! The stillness and suspense that these fine artists create from the outset powerfully suggest that Heine and Schubert are envisaging a ghost town. There’s real apprehension in the air as the song unfolds. It’s a riveting performance.

How do you follow that? Schubert’s publisher, Tobias Haslinger, who assembled the collection after Schubert’s death, set interpreters a real challenge by adding, almost as an afterthought, it seems, one extra song. The setting of Johann Gabriel Seidl’s ‘Die Taubenpost’ seems almost a superficial afterthought following the graphic intensity of ‘Der Doppelgänger’. And yet; is there not more to it than an attractive little ditty? I recall that when I saw him perform Schwanengesang at Chipping Campden, Roderick Williams explained that he viewed ‘Die Taubenpost’ as a quasi-encore and, indeed, he and Susie Allan observed a short pause before performing it. Rightly, he sings it smoothly and attractively, drawing the listener into the narrative, and the relaxed air is heightened by the perfect weighting of the piano part by Iain Burnside. However, a note of gentle melancholy is also brought out, especially towards the end where the poet reveals that the pigeon’s name is ‘Sehnsucht’ (longing). As performed here, the song is an easeful envoi.

This is a deeply satisfying and rewarding disc. The performances of An die ferne Geliebte and Schwanengesang are cultivated and very carefully considered. Roderick Williams sings with his customary finesse, evidencing immersion in the words and giving great pleasure through the sheer sound of his voice. Iain Burnside’s piano playing is exemplary; this is a genuine creative partnership.

The production values are high. Jonathan Cooper has recorded the performers clearly and in excellent equilibrium with each other. The booklet incudes a valuable essay by Roderick Williams in which he illuminates his approach to the songs. There’s also a note about the music by Barry Cooper. The content of this note is good but, as I commented in connection with the previous release, it does seem mildly perverse to have the note referring to the composer’s original keys when Williams is singing the low voice version, where the keys are different.

I enjoyed this disc very much indeed and I hope we won’t have to wait too long before the same team give us their view of Winterreise.

John Quinn

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