Tuesday 23 October 2018

Vivid story telling: Schubert's Swansong with Sir John Tomlinson and Christopher Glynn

Schubert: Swansong - John Tomlinson, Christopher Glynn - Signum
Schubert Swansong, On the River, The Shepherd on the Rock; Sir John Tomlinson, Sophie Bevan, Julian Bliss, Alec Frank-Gemmill, Christopher Glyn, Jeremy Sams (translation); Signum Records Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 21 October 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Schubert's last song cycle in English with a vivid, if idiosyncratic, from John Tomlinson

Jeremy Sams has produced new English translations of Schubert's three great song cycles, each of which was premiered at the Wigmore Hall. In December 2016, Sir John Tomlinson and Christopher Glynn performed the final of the trio, Swansong (Schwanengesang) [see my review], and this has now been recorded on the Signum Classics label, along with Schubert's On the River (Auf dem Strom) and The Shepherd on the Rock performed by Glynn with Sophie Bevan (soprano), Alec Frank-Gemmill (horn) and Julian Bliss (clarinet).

If you are going to have Schubert performed in English then I can think of no better singer to do it than John Tomlinson. Whatever language he sings in, his diction has always been superb and not just that, his way with words and the relish with which he sings them is completely riveting. With a performance like the one on this disc we return to the idea of the lied as sung poetry, with the words being of as much importance as the music.

The songs of Swansong are possibly not a song cycle at all but two different song groups (the Rellstab settings and the Heine settings) plus the final song (setting Seidl), though I have heard Mark Padmore (in recital at the Wimbledon Festival) convincingly argue for a coherent thread running through.

On this disc, Tomlinson and Glynn give each song its own particular sense and colour; when I heard them performing the work live at the Wigmore Hall it felt like hearing one's grandfather telling stories and that comes over here. Tomlinson makes a vivid vignette of each narrative, combining atmosphere with powerful story telling.

There is no denying that Tomlinson's voice is not what it was (he was just over 70 when the cycle was recorded) and you can hear him carefully managing it, high notes are approached carefully, the lyrical line of 'Serenade' is only achieved with some effort and this is probably a more powerful, and louder performance than many you might hear. In fact, Tomlinson uses volume as one of the expressive devices, so this is never a boring performance, and it is frankly one which is riveting.

It is clear that the lived in nature of Tomlinson's voice is one which he is used to and comfortable with, so this is not an account of the work where you feel the singer struggling against nature all the time. Instead, Tomlinson works with his voice, using its sheer fallibility to expressive purpose. Quite simply, he knows how to tell a story and uses every device possible.

He is finely partnered by Glynn who is equally vivid in his accompaniments. After all, partnering a performance as vividly vibrant and strong as this, you would need to be. Whilst I will always want to return to other singers in this cycle, the sense of narrative and the combination of music, text and emotion make this a performance to return to.

It was a good idea to pair Swansong with two more late works, Schubert's pair of soprano settings with instrumental obbligato, both large scale works. Here Sams' translations are performed by soprano Sophie Bevan. She gives admirable performances, and I would always want to hear her in this repertoire. The Shepherd on the Rock was written for Anna Milder-Hauptman, the woman who created Beethoven's Fidelio/Leonore (in all three of its incarnations) so clearly you need a voice which combines power and flexibility. That Bevan does, unfortunately compared to Tomlinson her diction is weak.

You definitely need the printed texts to follow what she is saying. Partly this is to do with the nature of the soprano voice, but comparisons will inevitably be made and whilst Tomlinson's words rivet from the word go, Bevan's take some work to apprehend.

There is a lot to be said for performing lieder in English, and the sense of personal communication without anything in between is perhaps the primary objective. Sams' translations are admirable, direct and poetic.

Christopher Glynn and Roderick Williams have already released Winter Journey, their recording of Sams translation of Winterreise on Signum Classics [see my review], and I certainly look forward to the final cycle of the trio, but I also hope that the project might continue and we might get a disc of Schubert's other lieder in translation.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) - Swansong
Franz Schubert - On the River
Franz Schubert - The Shepherd on the Rock
Sir John Tomlinson (bass)
Sophie Bevan (soprano)
Julian Bliss (clarinet)
Alec Frank-Gemmill (horn)
Christopher Glynn (piano)
Recorded St Silas Church, Kentish Town, 11-13 September 2017, 10 January 2018

Available from Amazon.

Elsewhere on this blog:
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  • Independent Opera Showcase Recital at Wigmore Hall (★★★½) - concert review
  • Damn fine music: Stanford's Mass Via Victrix (1914-1918) receives its belated premiere  - feature
  • A visit to Italy at the Oxford Lieder Festival (★★★★) - concert review
  • Untold riches - music from Estonia & the Baltic at the Oxford Lieder Festival (★★★★) - concert review
  • Southbank Sinfonia and Vladimir Ashkenazy in Grieg, Prokofiev and Beethoven (★★★★)  concert review
  • A Bernstein Celebration - London English Song Festival - concert review
  • Hansel & Gretel: a nightmare in eight scenes (★★★) - theatre review
  •  Something for everyone: Gershwin's Porgy and Bess from English National Opera (★★★★)  - opera review
  •  Handel's Radamisto from English Touring Opera (★★★★½) - Opera review
  • Portrait of a life (or many): Art songs from the African diaspora (★★★★) - concert review
  • Crowd-funding & collaboration: new choral music from Lumen  - interview
  • Double concerto for bandoneon and violin (★★★½) - CD review
  • The choral music of Richard Allain (★★★½) - CD review
  •  Home

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