09 May 2016

CD REVIEW: Franz Schubert — SCHWANENGESANG, D.957 (Hermann Prey, baritone; DECCA 480 8171 and James Rutherford, baritone; BIS Records BIS-2180)

IN REVIEW: Franz Schubert - SCHWANENGESANG (DECCA 480 8171 and BIS Records BIS-2180)FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797 – 1828): Schwanengesang, D.957— [1] with Goethe Lieder by Schubert and Lieder by Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949); Hermann Prey, baritone; Walter Klien, piano (Schwanengesang); Karl Engel, piano (Goethe and Strauss Lieder) [Recorded in Sofiensaal, Vienna, Austria, 13 – 15 April 1963 (Schwanengesang) and DECCA Studios, West Hampstead, London, UK, 4 – 7 June 1963 (Strauss Lieder) and 14 – 18 February 1964 (Goethe Lieder); DECCA 480 8171; 1 CD, 78:52; Available from Amazon (USA – mp3 only), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers] and [2] with four miscellaneous Schubert Lieder; James Rutherford, baritone; Eugene Asti, piano [Recorded in Potton Hall, Saxmundham, Suffolk, UK, in January 2015; BIS Records BIS-2180; 1 SACD, 69:48; Available from ClassicsOnlineHD, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

At least since the inceptions of artistic endeavors and observers’ responses to them, there has been an insatiable interest, sometimes well-intentioned and at other times unjustifiably perverse, in perusing, contemplating, and analyzing artists’ final works. Since the advent of Freudian psychology, this interest has been intensified into an often misguided desire to interpret artists’ last creations as symbolism-laden, portentous metaphysical statements about life, death, and the people and places encountered along the way. It is beyond dispute that the death of Franz Schubert on 19 November 1828, before he reached his thirty-second birthday, was a blow to music of no less impact than the similarly early demises of Mozart, Mendelssohn, Bellini, and Chopin, but what stories do his last compositions tell? A generation ago, it might have been suggested that, except as a composer of Lieder, Schubert’s youthful promise was never fully realized: his chamber music, liturgical works, and writing for piano remained in the shadows of Beethoven and Haydn, his operas were unsuccessful, and his most ambitious undertaking as a symphonist was left unfinished. These shortsighted assessments now mostly abandoned, Schubert is recognized as the genius that his music confirms that he was. With this recognition inevitably comes the impetus to scrutinize the collection of the late Lieder published in 1829 as Schwanengesang (D.957) for the cryptic confidences of an artist aware of his own imminent extinction. In a sense, Schubert is as apt a prototype for the Artist as Melancholic Loner paradigm as Tchaikovsky: the sentimental arcs of the Austrian’s earlier, bonafide Lieder cycles, Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, give modern psychoanalysts sufficient fodder for tomes of Traumdeutung. Settings of texts by Heinrich Heine, Ludwig Rellstab, and Johann Gabriel Seidl rather than a single poet’s verses as was the case in Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, the Lieder that comprise Schwanengesang were almost certainly not intended to constitute a cycle in the traditional manner, instead likely falling victim to a publisher’s action that was equal parts simple convenience and Romanticized marketing ploy. Hearing these songs performed by baritones of different generations and nationalities, Hermann Prey on DECCA and James Rutherford on BIS, offers fascinating insights into the complex but often over-complicated microcosms of Schwanengesang. Where these very different performances, recorded a half-century apart, intersect is in their participants’ commendable refusals to indulge in anachronistic emotional dissection of Schubert’s music; there and in the joy of hearing the composer’s songs sung so capably and meaningfully. Put down your pens, armchair psychologists, and merely listen for a while!

Born in Berlin in 1929, Prey was the rare singer who was from the start of his career a Lieder interpreter of the first order. As voice aficionados opine, there are great natural instruments and great singers, but few are the great artists whose work encompasses both important voices and the skills to use them properly. Portraying the eponymous protagonist of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia in the opera house, performing Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem on the concert stage, or singing Lieder in the recital hall, Prey was a great artist in whose singing voice and technique achieved equal levels of reliable excellence. Making its first appearance on compact disc in DECCA/Universal’s Most Wanted Recitals! series, Prey’s 1963 reading of Schwanengesang, recorded in Vienna’s storied Sofiensaal, is one of the most worthy recipients of Víctor Suzán Reed’s near-miraculous remastering. Among many studio recordings, including performances of Schwanengesang accompanied by Philippe Bianconi on Denon, Leonard Hokanson on Deutsche Grammophon, and Gerald Moore on Philips, none comes closer to faithfully reproducing on disc the rounded beauty and haunting overtones of Prey’s voice as it sounded in the theatre. [I heard him as Der Musiklehrer in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos near the end of his career, when, past the age of sixty, he mastered every note and word of the part with an ease that singers half his age—myself included—should have envied.] In such an aural setting, the many virtues and the few vices of this disc are stunningly apparent.

Without strong-arming the music in a conscious effort to metamorphose the songs into a younger sibling for Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, Prey and pianist Walter Klien, a renowned interpreter of Schubert’s piano music, build a Schwanengesang with a cumulative narrative that is considerably more effectively linear—or cyclical, as it were—than many readings that force the issue manage to engender. Recorded here in his mid-thirties, it is not surprising that Prey was on superb vocal form. Though he vocalizes splendidly, this is noticeably a young man’s Schwanengesang, in the course of which somber emotions, presumably foreign to a man in the early prime of his life, sometimes prompt over-singing. Prey was too sensitive and sensible an artist to wholly abandon musicality, but there are passages in which he seems to be purposefully emulating singers with larger voices. This introduces a suggestion that Prey, not yet having fully discerned how to be Prey, was fashioning his performance after the model of a singer like Hans Hotter. In the fourteen canonical Lieder of Schwanengesang [Prey and Klien embrace tradition by closing with ‘Die Taubenpost’ but exclude ‘Herbst,’ adopted by Rutherford and Asti as a part of the de facto cycle], Klien’s straightforward pianism, animated and subtly nuanced, provides Prey with generally beneficial support. The very different tests of the first three songs of Schwanengesang, ‘Liebesbotschaft,’ ‘Kriegers Ahnung,’ and ‘Frühlingssehnsucht,’ are negotiated with boundless vocal fortitude, the tremendous quality of Prey’s voice immediately apparent. For those acquainted with the baritone’s later work, especially his subsequent recordings of Schwanengesang, the too-emphatic approach, disjointed phrasing, and straying intonation that intrude into Prey’s singing in these songs may be surprising, but these undoubtedly are the follies of youth, not of indifferent artistry. Prey voices the familiar ‘Ständchen’ elegantly, and the sinewy sturdiness of the voice is an obvious strength in ‘Aufenthalt,’ here sung with greater power than poetry. There are glimpses of vulnerability in his account of ‘In der Ferne,’ the words sagaciously pointed. The performances of both ‘Abschied’ and ‘Der Atlas’ are characterized by firm, resonant singing that sporadically overwhelms the intricacies of Schubert’s vocal lines.

The Prey familiar from his later, probing performances of Winterreise emerges in his singing of ‘Ihr Bild.’ Here, the true artist’s verbal acuity and keen intelligence outweigh the young singer’s inclination to focus primarily on vocalizing impressively. In ‘Das Fischermädchen,’ too, Prey adheres to a dedication to extracting meaning from the manner in which Schubert manipulated text within the cadences of his music. Very different musically and dramatically, ‘Die Stadt’ and ‘Am Meer’ are sung with intensity that highlights the kinship between the songs. The same can be said of Prey’s handling of ‘Der Doppelgänger’ and ‘Die Taubenpost.’ The first of these, one of Schubert’s most unnervingly sublime inspirations, receives from Prey a performance of startling vehemence, the narrator’s confusion transformed into the singer’s vivid discontent. For this singer, ‘Die Taubenpost’ is less dismaying than disquieting, the song’s sentiments viewed through the prism of a young man’s worldview rather than that of a weary wanderer. Boldly, intermittently bruisingly sung, this Schwanengesang is not a concerted leave-taking but an extended act of resistance.

Slightly less than a year after recording Schwanengesang in Vienna, Prey joined with pianist Karl Engel in London to record several of Schubert’s Lieder with texts by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The passing of a year did not measurably alter the young baritone’s gifts as a Lieder interpreter, but the ruddy health of the voice is perhaps even more astonishing in his singing of these seven songs than in the previous year’s Schwanengesang. Prey’s singing of ‘Heidenröslein’ (D.257), ‘An die Entfernte’ (D.765), and ‘Rastlose Liebe’ (D.138) radiates confidence and imagination, thereafter perpetuated but cleverly adapted to the differing requirements of ‘Erster Verlust’ (D.226) and ‘An Schwager Kronos’ (D.369). Listeners in search of examples of the verbal and musical acumen that made Prey one of the most effective Papagenos in the two-century performance history of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte can find a pair of them in ‘Schäfers Klagelied’ (D.121) and ‘Willkommen und Abschied’ (D.767) on this disc.

Committed to vinyl in London in 1963, with Engel at the keyboard, the three Lieder by Richard Strauss on this disc also here make their CD début, and they are especially welcome, as even now performances of Strauss Lieder by lower voices are less frequent than the continuing popularity and artistic merit of Strauss’s song literature dictate that they should be. Prey sings ‘Ich trage meine Minne’ (Op. 32, No. 1) commandingly, basking in the composer’s late-Romantic idiom. ‘Befreit’ (Op. 39, No. 4), one of Strauss’s most familiar songs and a mainstay of virtually every soprano’s recital repertory, is imaginatively phrased by the baritone, the challenging range of the vocal line troubling him little. Prey’s singing of the spirited ‘Bruder Liederlich’ (Op. 41b, No. 4) has the broad good humor and playfulness of an university glee club’s singing of bawdy madrigals. Singing early or late Schubert or Strauss, this artist offers performances in which even their imperfections captivate. That Prey was one of the most important Lieder singers of the Twentieth Century can hardly be questioned, but it is wonderful to have this empirical verification of the legitimacy of his lionization.

Since taking the top prize in Seattle Opera’s first International Wagner Competition in 2006, the Norwich-born Rutherford has expanded his Wagnerian credentials with acclaimed portrayals of Kurwenal in Tristan und Isolde, Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and, most recently, Wotan in Der Ring des Nibelungen. Like Prey, whose Metropolitan Opera début was in the lighter Wagner rôle of Wolfram in Tannhäuser in 1960 and whose Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger was a much-loved component of MET and Bayreuth productions, the British baritone is as comfortable in recital as in opera and concert. Also like Prey, he and his Schwanengesang pianist, Eugene Asti, bring to their musical partnership credentials that qualify them individually and jointly as proven dynamos of Lieder repertory, this ideally-produced BIS recording celebrating fifteen years of collaboration on Schubert Lieder. Having recorded Schubert’s pseudo-cycle when he was nearly a decade older than Prey was at the time of the DECCA recording, Rutherford brings to his performance a greater depth of pessimism, the narrative voice that emerges from his energetic but eloquent interactions with Asti’s accompaniment weighted and worn by unfulfilled longing. Rutherford’s voice is heavier and darker than Prey’s, but his is the lighter Schwanengesang, one in which events occur and are faced rather than confronted and defied. The performance of the opening ‘Liebesbotschaft’ sets the tone for the cycle as a whole: the pianist’s crystalline execution of rhythmic figurations enhances the singer’s realizations of Schubert’s remarkably intuitive amalgamations of words and music. Ironically, Rutherford, with a more robust timbre than Prey had at his disposal, delves further into the delicate recesses of the music, the size of the voice only rarely impeding his examination of small details of the songs. He sings ‘Kriegers Ahnung’ sonorously, the soul of Wotan flickering to life in the Lied’s expressive gravity. ‘Frühlingssehnsucht’ and ‘Ständchen’ are molded by baritone and pianist with musical and emotional elasticity, Rutherford wielding a degree of flexibility admirable for a singer of his Fach. The bristling force of this pair’s traversal of ‘Aufenthalt’ never damages the song’s underlying gentleness. As it is performed here, the inclusion of ‘Herbst’ (D.945) is an organic extension of the spiritual voyage without which Schwanengesang seems reduced. Rutherford mines the disparities between ‘In der Ferne’ and ‘Abschied’ for their psychological consequence and refines this raw ore into a brilliant ingot of priceless beauty. Though the voice is occasionally unwieldy and unfocused, virtually unavoidable aspects of scaling a larger voice to the dimensions of ‘smaller’ music, Rutherford’s pitch is laudably certain.

Propelled by Asti’s resilient playing, this is a performance of ‘Der Atlas’ in which the singer sounds as though bearing the weight of the world upon his shoulders should be but a minor burden. The pain of ‘Ihr Bild’ emanates from the grim colorations of Rutherford’s tones without upsetting the balance of his vocal registers. By uniformly transposing the Lieder that comprise Schwanengesang down by a minor third, Rutherford and Asti preserve the relationships among the songs’ keys as originally conceived by Schubert, whether or not they were composed with any conscious associations. This strategy sometimes makes the tessitura of Schwanengesang more challenging for the baritone than it could otherwise be, but Rutherford copes heroically. His voicing of ‘Das Fischermädchen’ is distinguished by glimmers of optimism that ripple along the surface of the line. The feelings that flood the baritone’s voice in ‘Die Stadt’ and ‘Am Meer’ are explored but not exaggerated. Whereas Prey’s interpretation of ‘Der Doppelgänger’ was shaped by an almost violent fervor, the urgency of Rutherford’s reading is drawn from a crushingly inward recognition of failure. ‘Die Taubenpost’ is likely the last Lied that Schubert completed, and it is here performed with a touching sense of finality. Beyond its superlative musical qualities, this disc makes one of the most convincing cases yet recorded for regarding and performing Schwanengesang as a cycle, the seeds of complementary ideas blossoming in the warmth of Rutherford’s and Asti’s nurturing.

Rutherford and Asti supplement their Schwanengesang with performances of four paragons from Schubert’s extensive Lieder catalogue. The baritone works earnestly to evince a measure of freshness in the familiar ‘Die Forelle’ (D.550), and his diaphanous management of the song’s distinctive rhythms is delightful. Asti’s playing infuses ‘Auf der Bruck’ (D.853) and ‘Gruppe aus dem Tartarus’ (D.583) with musical integrity that is anything but common, and Rutherford’s vocalism soars on the zephyr of his accompanist’s exertions. ‘An die Musik’ (D.547) is an ideal summation of the prevailing sensibilities of this disc: reveling in their collaboration, Rutherford and Asti deliver a grand ode to Schubert’s music.

Those who look to Schwanengesang for answers about what made Schubert’s genius unique often ask the wrong questions. Fascinating as facets of the creative process invariably are, the circumstances that engendered the composition of the Lieder later assembled and published as Schwanengesang are surely less important that the songs themselves. Is a presentiment of death at the heart of the songs? Was Schwanengesang, in part or in whole, Schubert’s deliberate farewell to the Art of Song? Though they are products of very different eras in the history of recorded Classical Music, these performances of Schwanengesang concentrate not on ephemeral concerns but on tangible musical standards. Their toils separated by fifty-two years, Hermann Prey and James Rutherford exhibit why Schubert’s swan song still sings so magically to those ears willing to hear it on its own terms.