10 July 2016

CD REVIEW: Franz Schubert — DER WANDERER – LIEDER (Roderick Williams, baritone; Iain Burnside, piano; Delphian Records DCD34170)

IN REVIEW: Franz Scubert - DER WANDERER - LIEDER (Delphian Records DCD34170)FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797 – 1828): Der Wanderer – LiederRoderick Williams, baritone; Iain Burnside, piano [Recorded in St Mary’s Parish Church, Haddington, East Lothian, UK, 21 – 24 October 2015; Delphian Records DCD34170; 1 CD, 72:41; Available from Delphian Records (via downloadable catalogue), NAXOS Direct, Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Some time ago, a PBS interviewer asked singer-turned-actress Michelle Phillips during a live segment in a fundraising broadcast which attributes, in her opinion, distinguished 1960s pop sensation The Mamas and the Papas from other artists of their generation. Undaunted, Phillips replied with genuine candor, ‘We could sing.’ It seems laughably obvious that the success of a musical enterprise should depend upon the raw quality of its ‘product,’ but, in Classical Music as much as in any other genre, it is too often ignored that it is music, not hype, that burrows into a listener’s memory. In no repertory is this truer than in the Lieder of Franz Schubert, collectively as bounteous a trove of musical jewels as exists in Western music. Performers can barrage hearers with every sort of clever gimmick and well-meaning concept, but an insufficiently-planned, poorly-sung recital of Schubert Lieder is dead on arrival. Der Wanderer, this new Delphian Records disc of Schubert Lieder performed by baritone Roderick Williams and pianist Iain Burnside, perfectly illustrates this truth. No brash cover art distracts the eyes, no pseudo-academic revelations clutter the informative and thoroughly readable liner notes, no high-minded abstractions distort the songs’ contexts: the emphasis is wholly, solely, gloriously on the music. What characterizes Roderick Williams as one of today’s nulli secundus interpreters of Schubert Lieder? Simply put, he can sing, and, oh, how he sings on this disc!

Born in North London to a Welsh father and a Jamaican mother, Williams honed his craft at the Guildhall School of Music, where he made his operatic début as the sinister Tarquinius in Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia. From that auspicious start, his operatic career has blossomed to include repertory spanning virtually the entire history of the genre. As a concert singer and recitalist, Williams’s repertory, encompassing pieces and arrangements of his own composition, is no less expansive. Hilarious as Rossini’s Figaro and Belcore in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, suavely cosmopolitan as Tchaikovsky’s Yevgeny Onegin, and moving as either Marcello or Schaunard in Puccini’s La bohème, he is a born creature of the stage, but the expertise that projects his histrionic acumen to the last row of an opera house is potently concentrated in the performance of Lieder. Whether singing to audiences of five thousand in Royal Albert Hall, five hundred in Wigmore Hall, or five gathered round a piano in some private space, his ability to establish an infrangible link with the empathy of every individual who hears him is wondrous.

Rare as Williams’s gifts are, it is all the more remarkable that he has found in Burnside a collaborator who shares and complements them. Celebrated as a BBC Radio 3 presenter in addition to his pianism, the Scotsman Burnside has been Williams’s companion on journeys through songs for baritone by Beethoven, Butterworth, Finzi, Ireland, Schönberg, Francis George Scott, and Hugh Wood. The partnership that they polished through those experiences suffuses their Schubert performances on this disc with prescience possible only after having meticulously studied music from both one’s own and one’s artistic partner’s perspectives. Hearing their interpretations of the Lieder on this disc, it is apparent that Williams and Burnside know one another’s music as comprehensively as their own, enabling an inviolable unity of purpose: when Williams and Burnside embark upon their trek through a Lied, they maneuver towards a common destination. Burnside’s technical prowess is never in doubt, but his is virtuosity as much of intuition as of dexterity.

Foremost in international esteem among the poets whose verses are heard in the Lieder on this disc is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a literary titan whose work has influenced and inspired composers uninterruptedly since the late Eighteenth Century. Especially in the last years of his life, the haughty Goethe was conspicuous in voicing his disapproval of musical settings of his texts. After two centuries, he would be wise to reconsider and thank Schubert and other composers for saving a number of his lesser-known works from oblivion in moldy, seldom-seen tomes. Were Goethe inclined to object to Schubert’s handling of his work in any of the four songs recorded here, hearing Williams’s and Burnside’s performances of them would surely soften his disapprobation. Composed in December 1822, ‘Willkommen und Abschied’ (D.767) is one of Schubert’s finest inspirations, and Williams sings it beautifully, his warm timbre providing the vowels with the lambency needed to disclose the subtle contrasts among the song’s moods. ‘Rastlose Liebe’ (D.138) is also performed by both Williams and Burnside with close attention to the nuances of the text, and their performance of ‘Wanderers Nachtlied’ (D.768) radiates affection for the music. ‘Der Musensohn’ (D.764) is another of Schubert’s most artfully-crafted and enjoyable Lieder, and Williams sings it here with wonderful spontaneity, both he and Burnside giving the impression of improvising the spirited Lied before the studio microphones.

Though now not enjoying as robust a reputation in literary circles as Goethe maintains, Friedrich von Schiller is familiar to opera lovers thanks to the frequency with which librettists and composers turned to his work for subjects suitable for the stage. In addition to Rossini’s Guillaume Tell and Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco, I masnadieri, Luisa Miller, and Don Carlo and Tchaikovsky’s Orleanskaja deva were all based upon texts by Schiller. Schubert’s ‘Der Pilgrim’ (D.794), dating from the time of his composition of Die schöne Müllerin, is a drama in miniature, its study of the disintegration of personal faith playing out on a scale at once intimate and universal. Williams enunciates the line ‘Nimmer, nimmer stand ich still’ with a touching sense of profound weariness overtaking the relentless pace of the poet’s descent into disillusionment. As in his singing of every Lied on this disc, however, it is the pure beauty of the voice that uplifts words and music.

The poets Georg Philipp Schmidt von Lübeck, Johann Gabriel Seidl, Matthias Claudius, and Friedrich Leopold zu Stolberg-Stolberg are virtually unknown to English-speaking readers in the Twenty-First Century, but their words fueled Schubert’s creation of sublime songs. Respectively utilizing texts by Lübeck and Seidl, ‘Der Wanderer’ (D.489) and ‘Der Wanderer an den Mond’ (D.870) tap very different veins of emotion despite their similar titles. To the former, Williams and Burnside bring a penetrating concentration that reveals layers of meaning neglected in many performances, prefacing the central section of the song with a pointed reading of the opening recitative that establishes the dramatic tone of the passage beginning with ‘Die Sonne dünkt mich hier so kalt.’ The performance of the folksong-like ‘Der Wanderer an den Mond’ on this disc is defined by the rapturous evocation of the major-key emergence of the moonlight, as ecstatically evocative here as Haydn’s depiction of first light in Die Schöpfung. In ‘An eine Quelle’ (D.530), Williams articulates Claudius’s text with his own kind of poetry, supported by Burnside’s equally poetic playing of Schubert’s coruscating music. Baritone and pianist give as appealing a performance of ‘Auf dem Wasser zu singen’ (D.774), Schubert’s setting of words by zu Stolberg-Stolberg, as has ever been recorded: accentuating the contemplation of the passing of time, considered in a manner not unlike that of the Marschallin in Act One of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, the music’s mimicking of the water’s lapping at the narrator’s vessel here sounds astonishingly sensual.

If the name Johann Mayrhofer is little if any more familiar to modern eyes that those of other poets of his generation, it is significant in the annals of Schubert’s career as a composer of Lieder. Williams and Burnside begin their survey of a quintet of Schubert’s Mayrhofer settings with an unapologetically romantic reading of ‘Aus Heliopolis II’ (D.754). Noted Schubert interpreter Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau conjectured that the writer’s ‘An Franz’ dedication at the start of the poem, theorized by most scholars to refer to Franz von Schober, author of the libretto for Schubert’s opera Alfonso und Estrella, was actually meant for Schubert: as sung by Williams, the Lied makes a strong case for Schubert having merited the poet’s appreciation. Both ‘Am Strome’ (D.539) and ‘Auf der Donau’ (D.553) benefit from particularly fervent playing by Burnside, and Williams’s earnestly beautiful vocalism magnifies the many felicities of Mayrhofer’s words and Schubert’s music in ‘Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren’ (D.360). Supplementing the Mayrhofer Lied ‘Der Schiffer’ (D.536), sonorously done, is the like-titled ‘Der Schiffer’ (D.694), a setting of a different text penned by Friedrich von Schlegel. This, too, Williams and Burnside infuse with absolute sincerity, the singer’s voice interweaving with the tones produced by the pianist’s fingers to fabricate a beguiling musical tapestry.

At the center of Der Wanderer are the seven Rellstab-Lieder from the posthumously-issued Schwanengesang (D.957), the enigmatic collection of songs that Schubert may or may not have intended to be published and performed as a cycle in the fashion of Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise. Just as they form the centerpiece of this disc, these seven settings of texts by Lidwig Rellstab are also the nucleus of Schwanengesang. Burnside is alert to the large and small differences among the piano parts of the songs but also heightens appreciation of the links that unite them. In his hands, the Lieder possess the synergy of a grand concerto in which, in the context of this disc, Williams’s voice is the featured instrument. That instrument is on exquisite form in ‘Liebesbotschaft,’ caressing the composer’s melodic line with a lover’s tenderness. In the divergent strains of ‘Kriegers Ahnung,’ ‘Frühlingssehnsucht,’ and the sublime ‘Ständchen,’ Williams’s singing is unequivocally secure throughout the range of the music, extending from rounded, unforced tones below the stave to easy, ‘pinging’ top notes. Deftly met, too, are the demands of ‘Aufenthalt,’ ‘In der Ferne,’ and ‘Abschied.’ Not unexpectedly, Williams and Burnside impart more of the sentimental essence of Schwanengesang in their performances of the seven Rellstab-Lieder than many performances manage to do in traversals of all fourteen of the songs in the collection.

Both as an exploration of the theme implied by the disc’s title, Der Wanderer, and as a straightforward illustrative sampling of the composers singular mastery as a custodian of the Art of Song, this disc is as intelligently-conceived a recital of Schubert Lieder as has been recorded since the advent of digital technology. That alone makes Der Wanderer a desirable release, but it is the awe-inspiring display of musicianship that makes this disc unmissable. Der Wanderer also reaffirms that, whether employing vocal cords or piano keys, Roderick Williams and Iain Burnside can sing.