> Choral and Song
Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis: "SCHUBERT: Schwanengesang"
With Watkins, French horn. Notes, texts and translations. Harmonia Mundi HMU 907520
Tenor Mark Padmore and pianist Paul Lewis administer some strong medicine for any fundamentalist Schubertian who believes there is one definitive version of each of his works. The most winning selection in the Padmore–Lewis Schwanengesang is the song that seems at first the most controversial, "Die Taubenpost." Any lover of this number who first heard it in the landmark 1962 recording by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore — which is to say, practically every living Schubert devotee — takes those performers' quick tempo as gospel. It's what defines the piece, many believe — this light, fleeting rhythm, the perfect evocation of a fairy-tale carrier pigeon. That infectious spark has made this final Schubert song a starting point for many budding aficionados.
Some worshippers, for whom Fischer-Dieskau is the prophet, may interrupt this new "Taubenpost" after just a few measures, deeply offended, and it's hard not to suspect at least some iconoclastic mischief in the performers' revisionism. But just hear them out; by the second stanza it becomes hard to dismiss their slower, more questioning approach. They make the tune function as bittersweet wishing, as doomed longing — "Sehnsucht," the name given to the carrier pigeon in Seidl's sentimental little poem. Musically and textually, this version comes to seem as natural and right as that supposedly canonical one. The stirring demonstration that both interpretations can work does all the more honor to the composer.
It is of course obvious by now that Padmore and Lewis are musically perceptive and temperamentally adventurous. In their Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise as well as here, these artists seem to me most convincing in their approach to a song's rhythm. The coloring is another matter. The first number in Schwanengesang seems thin and monochromatic in tone (possibly to balance the extremes of shading immediately after, in their motley "Kriegers Ahnung"), but its rhythmic vitality cannot be faulted. The same goes for the subtle shifts in timing that make "Ständchen" so fresh, especially the way the smooth waves absorb hints of staccato. At the same time, Padmore's head tones have an annoying flutter that seems overused, or possibly a technical blemish. Another less than endearing tic, to these ears at least, is the tendency to play with pitch for emphasis or affect.
But with these artists it pays to keep the big picture in mind. In a non-narrative cycle, or so-called cycle, as opposed to the two previous ones by Schubert, intense stylistic contrasts can provide some needed backbone. The spookier aspects of "Die Stadt" and "Der Doppelgänger" are a foil for sweeter songs, and the performers are careful not to let the darker moods peak too early. Unfairly or not, we react most subjectively to the human voice; the pianist's subtle textures and emphatic punctuation always seem effective without exaggeration.
The disc includes two other songs from the same period, the sad final year of Schubert's life. Both are less famous than Schwanengesang and more than welcome, but the French horn solo in "Auf dem Strom" seems awkwardly recorded at the very least, obtrusive and sometimes unintentionally dissonant.
DAVID J. BAKER