Tuesday 7 June 2016

Visions of lost worlds - Anne Schwanewilms in songs by Schubert, Schreker and Korngold

Schöne Welt... - Anne Schwanewilms - Capriccio
Schubert, Schreker, Korngold; Anne Schwanewilms, Charles Spencer; Capriccio
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on June 7 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Lieder early and late, an evocative programme from the German soprano

Under the title 'Schöne Welt ...' (Wonderful World), this new disc from soprano Anne Schwanewilms and pianist Charles Spencer on the Capriccio label brings together songs by Franz Schubert, Franz Schreker and Erich Korngold. They perform Schubert's Die Götter Griechenlands D677, An den Mond D296, An den Mond Op.57 No.3 D193, Im Abendrot D799, Das Mädchen D652, Die junge Nonne Op.43 No.1 D828, Schwestergruss D762, Der Tod und das Das Mädchen Op.7 No.3 D531 and Ellens Gesänge Op.52, plus Franz Schreker's Fünf Lieder Op.3 and Erich Korngold's Drei Lieder Op.22, songs which all in some way address the pursuit of the ideal and its inevitable loss.

The opening line of Schiller's poem in Die Götter Griechenlands D677 gives the disc its title, and Anne Schwanewilms' account of the song is full of longing for the lost word, with a wistful, elegiac feel despite the sweetness of the melodic material. She is complemented by the sweet piano tone of Charles Spencer's sympathetic accompaniment. The two songs An den Mond set rather different poems. The first, setting Goethe, has a long unfolding line.  For all the beauty of Schwanewilms' voice, it is the words which are made to count, with her shaping the phrases of the strophic setting to the text. The second An den Mond sets Hölty, and the long silvery thread of Schwanewilms' voice really draws us in. Im Abendrot has a magically suspended line, and a real sense of wonder as the Father's creation really gives the singer pause.

Franz Schreker's  Fünf Lieder Op.3 are early works, written when he was still a student at the end of the 19th century. They set poems by Paul Heyse (1830-1914), who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1910. Schreker's songs are a long way from his mature experiments with music theatre and extended tonality, instead we have intelligent modernisations of the lieder tradition which hint at what was going on musically in Vienna in the late 19th century.

When getting to know these songs we come across a frustrating aspect of this new disc, whilst the articles are in German and English, the song texts are in German only so that one must rely on one's own faulty German to follow the songs. The first song, In alten Tagen, is surprisingly simple and almost folk-like but full of subtle harmonic shifts. Im Lenz is freer, with a wonderfully expressive performance from Schwanewilms and Spencer. Both bring an intensity and clarity to the texture, making the song very affecting. Das Glück is almost Schubertian, but the music become more irregular and complex as the song develops. Like all the Schreker songs in this set, the piano part is of considerable interest. Es kommen Blätter is simple at first, but develops into a complex textured piece shot through with melancholy. Umsonst is a lyric drama, in which the performers make the intensity grow throughout the piece.

If the first group of Schubert songs examined visions of a better world, the second group is all about young women under stress. Das Mädchen is plangently sung with a lovely fine grained sound, whilst Die junge Nonne starts with just a thread of sound and a restless piano to create an intense drama.. Schwestergruss is simply haunting, and both performers have a fine sense of the large scale architecture of the song, really turning the screw over its six minute length. Der Tod und das Mädchen is short but mesmeric and haunting, with the chorale-like melody being truly unearthly.

Korngold's songs, Drei Lieder Op.22, were written in 1928 when he still seemed set for a brilliant career in Austria. Was du mir bist... has a lovely transparent texture, with a sense of magic in its ravishing vocal line. Mit Dir zu schweigen is more chromatic and brings echoes of Richard Strauss or early Berg; a lovely song. Welt ist stille eingeschlaten has a texture which seems to evoke the stars, a delicate piano and rapturous voice.

The final group consists of Schubert's three Ellens Gesänge, setting poems inspired by Scott's Lady of the Lake. The first, Raste Krieger is a really large scale scena, though Schwanewilms and Spencer eschew anything overtly operatic in their fine exposition of the drama in the piece. Spencer's crisply rhythmic piano complementing the lyric intensity of Schwanewilms performance with some lovely changes of mood during the piece. The second Jäger, ruhe von der Jagd seems at first to be a more simple hunting song though the performers make it anything but that. The final song of the group is the well known Ave Maria, in an affecting performance which seems to take all the time in world and yet remains compelling from beginning to end.

Anne Schwanewilms' has a very specific sound to her voice, with a bright yet expressive sense of spun silver to it. For all the profound beauty of her voice, she does not rely simply on its timbral qualities. One of the joys of the disc is the way she brings a sense of the expressive text and a feeling of exploring all the expressive options. Charles Spencer makes a fine partner, complementing her performance with superb pianism. I was repeatedly struck by how the piano tone was caught in many of the songs, giving it a sweet warmth and expressive tone without any of the glassy hardness which can often creep in to even the best recordings.

The lack of English texts (and the complete lack of texts for the Korngold songs) is a big black mark against the recording especially as English translations of the Paul Heyse songs are simply difficult to track down. I have not reflected this in my awarding of stars to the recording; I was tempted to, but felt it unfair to the performers.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) - Die Götter Griechenlands D677
Franz Schubert - An den Mond D296
Franz Schubert - An den Mond Op.57 No.3 D193
Franz Schubert - Im Abendrot D799
Franz Schreker (1878-1934) - Fünf Lieder Op.3
Franz Schubert - Das Mädchen D652
Franz Schubert - Die junge Nonne Op.43 No.1 D828
Franz Schubert - Schwestergruss D762
Franz Schubert - Der Tod und das Das Mädchen Op.7 No.3 D531 
Erich Korngold (1897-1957)- Drei Lieder Op.22
Franz Schubert - Ellens Gesänge Op.52,
Anne Schwanewilms (soprano)
Charles Spencer (piano)
Recorded Studio Britz, Berlin, 24-28 August 2015
Available from Amazon.co.uk

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