This CD follows up the very fine versions by Mark Padmore and
Paul Lewis of Die Schöne Müllerin (review)
and Winterreise (review).
Their achievement here seems to be no less great than in the
two previous releases. As before, one of the key factors in
the excellence of these Schubert performances is that here we
have two musicians, both of them distinguished soloists in their
own right, working in genuine partnership. Indeed, I was struck
by the fact that two of the finest previous recordings of Schwanengesang
that I know, those by Peter Schreier (Decca, 1989) and Matthias
Goerne (Decca, 2003), have in common with this new release the
presence of a noted virtuoso pianist - respectively András
Schiff and Alfred Brendel. Those great pianists bring significant
insights to the interpretation of this collection of songs,
as does Paul Lewis.
Unlike Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise,
Schwanengesang is not a song cycle. Rather, it is a collection
of fourteen songs assembled and published after the composer’s
death by the publisher, Tobias Haslinger. The collection comprises
seven settings of poems by Ludwig Rellstab (1799-1860), six
by Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) and, tacked on at the end somewhat
incongruously, one by Johann Gabriel Seidl (1804-1875). Here
Padmore and Lewis present the songs in their conventional order.
I say that because on their often-revelatory disc Schreier and
Schiff not only alter the usual ordering of both the Rellstab
and Heine groups but they also include an extra song within
the Rellstab group and, for good measure, make Seidl’s
‘Der Taubenpost’ the first of a group of four settings
of his poems by Schubert.
The Rellstab settings come first. Right from the outset Padmore
and Lewis set out their stall in ‘Liebesbotschaft’.
Lewis’s playing has a delightful fluency while Padmore’s
delivery is easy and light and there’s splendid clarity
of diction - and, so far as I can judge, his German pronunciation
is excellent. I love the delicacy with which both performers
deliver the fourth stanza in particular, demonstrating that
in many ways this song takes us back to Die Schöne Müllerin.
The perfect weighting by Lewis of the chords in the introduction
to ‘Kriegers Ahnung’ creates a sense of foreboding
and paves the way for singing by Padmore that is often daring
in its expressiveness - sample the hushed tone in which he delivers
the second line of the first stanza. There’s a tremendous
sense of atmosphere created in this song, due in no small measure
to the care that Padmore takes over the words.
The famous ‘Ständchen’ is performed in a graceful,
relaxed vein, yet a sense of melancholy is never far away. Lewis’s
gentle accompaniment delightfully suggests a guitar on which
the serenading singer might have accompanied himself. For the
most part Padmore’s delivery is again light and easeful
but, rightly, he displays more urgency and passion in the penultimate
stanza. There’s vivid drama in ‘Aufenhalt’
- the title is translated in the booklet as ‘Resting Place’
but there’s no repose here. ‘In der Ferne’
is also intense, though in a different way. Paul Lewis shows
marvellous attention to detail in this song, especially in the
third stanza; as so often in this collection of songs his playing
is really insightful. The last of the Rellstab group, ‘Abschied’,
takes us back to the world of Die Schöne Müllerin.
On the surface the music seems almost light hearted but, of
course, there are deeper feelings below the surface. I love
not only the lightness and momentum that Lewis brings to the
piano part but also his subtle use of rubato. Padmore’s
singing is irresistible, especially his effortless top notes.
With the Heine group we move into deeper waters. In several
of these songs we can see Schubert going even beyond the expressive
and musical range of Winterreise and pointing very firmly
towards the language of mid- and late-nineteenth century romanticism.
‘Der Atlas’ is a case in point. Though the piano
introduction is brief it comes across here with great power
in Lewis’s hands - I prefer his more sustained way with
the music to the way Schiff treats it; Lewis gives the music
more breadth. Both Lewis and Padmore bring impressive histrionic
power to this song. Padmore may not quite match the rhetorical
bitterness of Schreier but he’s not far off.
‘Die Stadt’ is another remarkable song. I was enormously
impressed by the suspenseful piano introduction; the little
washes of watery sound in the right hand - a recurrent device
in this song - are chilling. Padmore’s mysterious, daringly
hushed singing matches the vision of his partner and then the
declamatory power they bring to the third stanza is all the
more effective in contrast to what has gone before. ‘Am
Meer’ is just as fine. The piano introduction consists
of a mere two chords, quietly sounded twice, yet the way Lewis
plays them is suggestive of a vast horizon. Padmore sings the
pensive first and third stanzas with excellent control, phrasing
in long, sustained lines. The poem - and the music - conveys
more inner turmoil in the second and fourth stanzas and Padmore’s
response is judged to perfection.
‘Der Doppelgänger’ is an extraordinary song
and it receives a riveting reading from these two perceptive
artists. The short introduction has been described by the critic
Alex Ross as “an acutely unnerving progression in B minor
in which each chord has been lobotomized by the surgical removal
of one essential note. These chords draw a picture of a walking
corpse.” Lewis plays this passage enthrallingly, achieving
a depth and profundity of sonority that creates a potent atmosphere.
His erstwhile teacher, Brendel, is even more hushed on the Goerne
account (a live recording taken from performances at the Wigmore
Hall) but I don’t think he matches Lewis’s depth
of tone. Both pianists make the music sound glacial. The tempo
is daringly slow, as is that taken by Goerne and Brendel - and
it’s noticeable that Schreier and Schiff, who are also
superbly expressive, take a whole minute less over the song.
However, Padmore and Lewis sustain the line of the song magnificently,
even at this slow pace, and the tension in the performance is
palpable. In their hands the first stanza has an eerie stillness
and then they rack up the tension significantly in the second
stanza. Padmore is searingly intense, even if in the middle
lines of the third stanza he doesn’t choose to harden
his tone in the Loge-like way that Schreier does. The last line
is superbly delivered. ‘So manche Nacht’ sounds
as if the words have been wrenched from him and then he displays
superb control, easing the dynamic downwards on ‘in alter
In some ways I’ve never felt less like hearing ‘Die
Taubenpost’ than after this account of ‘Der Doppelgänger’.
It’s always struck me as an odd appendage to the collection,
almost as if Haslinger didn’t dare leave listeners with
the searing emotion and bleak despair of that final Heine setting
and wanted the last impression to be that of the genial Schubert.
It’s interesting to note that in their recording Schreier
and Schiff end the Heine group not with ‘Der Doppelgänger’
but with ‘Der Atlas’. Even more revealingly, Goerne
and Brendel seem to have presented ‘Die Taubenpost’
to their Wigmore Hall audience as an encore because there’s
applause after ‘Der Doppelgänger’. For domestic
listening one can always hit the pause button and in any event
Padmore and Lewis give a winning account of ‘Die Taubenpost’.
Crucially, although the setting may be more charming and overtly
innocent than the preceding songs they pay it the compliment
of lavishing on it the same attention to detail. Once again
Lewis includes some delectable little touches of rubato while
Padmore’s care for the words is as evident as always.
By comparison Schreier and Schiff, at a fleeter tempo, are more
straightforward and less interventionist in their performance.
That’s highly appropriate in many ways but I relish the
additional insights of Padmore and Lewis.
To complete the disc Padmore and Lewis offer two further late
Schubert settings. Auf dem Strom is an extended setting
of another Rellstab poem in which the texture is embellished
by the addition of a substantial horn part, superbly played
here by Richard Watkins. Padmore’s plangent tone is an
ideal foil to the ripely romantic sound of the horn. Finally,
Padmore and Lewis take their leave of us with a beguiling reading
of Die Sterne. This genial setting is, arguably, echt-Schubert
and the lightness of touch displayed by both singer and pianist
result in a winning performance.
This disc rounds off this Schubert series superbly. This magnificent
reading of Schwanengesang is one of the best I’ve
heard and it’s a worthy companion to the two preceding
discs. Both the singing and the pianism are of the very highest
quality and the recorded sound is splendid. Mark Padmore and
Paul Lewis may have finished their Schubert traversal - though
some further recordings of individual songs would be more than
welcome - but I sincerely hope we haven’t heard the last
of them as a recital partnership.
Masterwork Index: Schwanengesang