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 Recording of the Week  Schubert's Schwanengesang from Padmore and Lewis

This week I’ve been enjoying the conclusion of Mark Padmore’s and Paul Lewis’s Schubert song cycle triptych. After widespread critical acclaim for their discs of Winterreise and Die Schöne Müllerin I imagine I wasn’t the only one eagerly awaiting Schwanengesang.

Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis
Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis

Unlike the earlier cycles, Schwanengesang (meaning ‘Swan Song’) wasn’t conceived as a song cycle by Schubert. Indeed it was put together and published posthumously by Schubert’s publisher, Haslinger, who wanted to maximise profits following the composer’s death. It is based on settings by three poets: Ludwig Rellstab (1799-1860) – the first seven songs; Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) – the next six songs; and Johann Gabriel Seidl (1804-1875) – the last song (which these days is not always performed as part of the set). Although there are certainly some thematic connections both in terms of subject matter and musical motifs, this cycle doesn’t have the same narrative cohesiveness which you get from Winterreise and Die Schöne Müllerin, so a successful performance relies heavily on the performers being able to capture the meaning and mood of each song instantly. With moods ranging from despair, loss and bitterness to nature, love and optimism this is a considerable undertaking.

Furthermore, in many ways these songs also represent a bit of a stylistic shift for Schubert as the content appears fairly minimal on the page and in some respects quite simple, but the musical results are anything but and the dynamic extremes, which go from ppp up to fff, are (I think) far beyond anything he had used previously in his songs.

However, Padmore and Lewis are well up to the task and their temperament and artistic ideas seem perfectly matched throughout. Padmore has a bright, light and true tenor voice which at times is almost hauntingly beautiful. He maintains a singing line through the more reflective songs but isn’t afraid to break from this with dramatic effect when necessary.

Paul Lewis again demonstrates what a special pianist he is, playing with imagination and wonderful characterisation. Even the subtlest change in harmony sounds like it has been carefully and lovingly considered with the exact placement crucial. Thematic lines (even when hidden in the middle or bottom registers) are brought vividly to life, and even the quietest chords are perfectly balanced.

I think some of Schubert’s best songs are contained in this cycle, and these are performances with great musical integrity which I will treasure for many years to come. The disc is completed with Auf dem Strom for tenor, horn and piano - which includes admirable horn playing from Richard Watkins - and a lovely little song called Die Sterne.

The usual sound samples are available via the link below. Oh, and it is included in our Harmonia Mundi special offer at the moment so don't delay!

Schubert: Schwanengesang

Mark Padmore (tenor) & Paul Lewis (piano)

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC