Schubert: Schwanengesang - Prégardien, Staier

Schubert: Schwanengesang - Prégardien, Staier

Challenge Classics  CC 72302

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Vocal

Franz Schubert: Schwanengesang and songs after Seidl

Christoph Prégardien (tenor)
Andreas Staier (piano)

In January 1829, a good two months after Schubert’s death, the Viennese music publisher Tobias Haslinger, with whom Schubert had worked very closely in the final years of his life, placed an advertisement in the Viennese press, in which he announced Franz Schubert’s Schwanen-Gesang, 14 Lieder, “the final fruits of his noble power [...], written in August 1828, shortly before his decease.” Haslinger had obtained the rights to the songs in December 1828 from Schubert’s brother Ferdinand, who had been handling the composer’s estate, and had given them the collective title of Schwanengesang. In reality there were two groups of songs: seven songs on texts by Ludwig Rellstab and six on texts by Heinrich Heine. These two groups are contained in a common manuscript of August 1828 and are today collected together as Schwanengesang (D 957), along with a single Lied, Die Taubenpost, on a poem by his friend Gabriel Seidl (D 965 A). The Lieder do not form a single cycle, for each group appears complete in itself. In the Heine group are collected together all the songs Schubert composed on poems by Heine; the same almost applies for the Rellstab group of Lieder: apart from the Lieder in Schwanengesang the only Rellstab poems on which Schubert wrote songs were the large-scale song for voice, horn and piano Auf dem Strom (D 943), the strophic Lied Herbst (D 945), which survives as an album leaf for Heinrich Panofka, and the incomplete Lied Lebensmut.

Some anecdotes have sprouted up around the Rellstab-Lieder. During a trip to Vienna in 1825 Ludwig Rellstab had allowed some of his poems to be copied, as is recorded in Beethoven’s companion book, and he had begged him “to select them for musical setting.” This did not happen, however Rellstab records in his memoirs that “the sheets were later restored to him from Beethoven’s estate.” Some of these “were annotated with little crosses drawn in pencil in Beethoven’s own hand” – and, according to Rellstab, it was these ones that had aroused Schubert’s interest. If it is correct that Schubert in fact set the very poems that Beethoven had at first selected for himself, this would be one more sign that Schubert saw himself as a successor to Beethoven, even as a completer of his work in Lieder composition.

The seven Lieder are united by a broad, epic tone, which can also be found in Taubenpost. But they cannot be considered a cycle as they are lacking both a unifying plot and a common musical structure: the Lieder are clearly distinguishable from one another in their structure: simple varied-strophe Lieder (such as Frühlingssehnsucht; also Ständchen, with its climactic, extended final strophe) stand alongside lyrical scenes (Liebesbotschaft, Aufenthalt) or a Lied with alternating strophes (Abschied, in which two interrelated strophic forms alternate) or an aria-like, through-composed Lied (Kriegers Ahnung: the dark forebodings of the “Krieger” (warrior) are manifested first in a kind of Totentanz, then brighten to become cheerful, darkly melancholy, and finally almost ecstatic visions, before the final return of the Totentanz). The most unusual Lied is In der Ferne, characterised by the rare text metre (a short dactylic line that leaves the singer scarcely time to breathe), and by surprising harmonic excursions (prompted by the text “Mutterhaus Hassenden” – hating the maternal home). The Lied is in two parts: the two opening strophes in B minor are followed by a broadly conceived final strophe in B major (repeated), prompted by the image of roaring winds and rippling waves, leading however to a cri de coeur: “grüßt von dem Fliehenden, Welt hinaus Ziehenden” (Greetings from the fugitive, roving the world!)

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DSD recording
Reviews (1)

Review by John Miller - October 19, 2008

Schwanengesang is not strictly one of Schubert's song cycles, lacking their thematic and dramatic continuity. It is rather a collection of songs by Heine and Rellstab written in 1828 and put together a few months after the composer's death in that year. The poetic themes, nature, love and separation in the case of Rellstab, bitterness, loss and despair in the case of Heine, inspired Schubert to produce some of his greatest works. The collection was published as Schubert's Swan Song. Schubert's brother later added a song from another group from the poems of Seidl, which Schubert had been working on in the same year. Die Taubenpost (Pigeon Post) is possibly the very last composition which Schubert worked on. On this disc, Prégardien and Staier also include the rest of the Seidl group, which has other well-known songs such as Sensucht (Longing) and Der Wanderer in den Mond (The Wanderer Speaks to the Moon). The booklet writer, Walther Dürr, rightly considers that the Seidl group is truly part of Schubert's Swan Song in its widest sense.

I gave a warm welcome to Prégardien for his truly affecting reading of Die Schöne Müllerin, which was partnered by Michael Gees on a modern piano. This time he is joined by another long time associate, fortepiano specialist Andreas Staier, who plays a modern reconstruction of a Graf instrument from the period. The piano ought itself to be considered as one of the stars of this recital; far from being clangy or clattery is has most beautiful tonal qualities, varied appealingly throughout its range. Its light-weight action allows Staier to play the rapid figurations in many of the song accompaniments with breathtaking liquidity, and the slight fragilty of the treble range in this wooden-framed instrument seems to fit the domestic context admirably. Staier's is a masterly realisation of Schubert's highly inventive accompaniments, which illlustrate and illuminate the songs so profoundly.

The readings by both artists are both deeply considered and spontaneously generated. They manage to plumb the depths of feeling which Schubert magically distils from these poems with an astonishing range of feeling, from light-hearted joy to the depths of human anguish. Prégardien's voice is always fully in control, in his sotto voce wooing a young maiden or as a desperate man railing at the implacable pain inflicted by Fate. He uses vibrato sparingly, just as Staier improvises discrete ornamentation in the piano part, especially in the strophic songs, where he my arpeggiate a chord or add a mordent. The evident rapport between the performers grips the attention from first note to last.

The DSD recording was made in the famous Galaxy Studios at Mol, Belgium. This facility was specially built to eliminate all external noise from the recording venue. Staier's piano and Prégardien's voice issues from an acoustically black background, so that every nuance can be heard. 5.1 surround adds a touch of extra atmosphere, which is appropriately that of a domestic setting, rather than a hall or church.

Challenge Records has packaged the disc in a box with an exemplary booklet. This has uncluttered design and the texts are displayed in a good sized font in both German and English. Notes and biographies are in German and English.

Lieder and art songs in general are poorly represented in SACD format so far, and Challenge are to be congratulated for producing two superb discs so far, with another of Schubert songs promised for 2009, this time with Prégardien and Michael Gees.

Recommended unreservedly for a moving and compelling recital.

Copyright © 2008 John Miller and