Wednesday 8 July 2020

Schubert's Four Seasons: an imaginative exploration of Schubert song from Sharon Carty and Jonathan Ware

Schubert's Four Seasons - Viola, Klage der Ceres and other songs; Sharon Carty, Jonathan Ware; GENUIN
Schubert's Four Seasons
- Viola, Klage der Ceres and other songs; Sharon Carty, Jonathan Ware; GENUIN

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 8 July 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
An exploration of the seasons through Schubert's song, with two of his larger scale pieces, from the young Irish mezzo-soprano

The Irish mezzo-soprano Sharon Carty is someone who has come into the orbit of Planet Hugill a number of times, she was in Donnacha Dennehy and Enda Walsh's opera The Second Violinist which Ruth reviewed in 2018, and more recently Carty was in the first recording of Gilbert and Cellier's The Mountebanks conducted by John Andrews on Dutton [see my review].

Now we have the chance to hear Sharon Carty in proper focus with the release of her recital Schubert's Four Seasons on the Genuin label. Accompanied by pianist Jonathan Ware, Carty sings a selection of Schubert's songs themed around the seasons, with two larger scale piece Viola D786 and Klage der Ceres D323.

The inclusion of these two large scale pieces (Viola is 13 minutes and Klage der Ceres over 15 minutes) brings a welcome sense of structure to the recital, and avoids that feeling of a number of disparate items gathered together in a way which only seems to make sense to the performers. Not that the result is without challenges of course, and whilst Klage der Ceres has quite a standard form as a dramatic cantata, Viola is much more modern in its outlook and its length offers both opportunities and difficulties.

Written in 1823 and setting a verse by Franz von Schober (the Swedish-born Austrian poet with whom Schubert would live for some time), Viola is a strange piece. Schubert sets it continuously, rather than as a cantata with recitative, using a refrain to link things together. The story is of the little violet joyfully preparing for the arrival of her bridegroom, Spring, yet blissfully unaware of her solitude and ending in cold, isolation and death. This can, of course, have a number of straightforward resonances.

But what we know of Schubert's sexuality and that of the circle of his friends can give extra resonances to the song. Schober is known to have been homosexual and did female impersonations, and homosexuality was a theme which ran through the artistic circles in which Schubert mixed. His own sexuality remains slightly obscure, but we know enough to realise that there was certainly something 'other' about him. Read like this, Schober's delightful poem can take on chilly overtones, and whatever Schubert's own sexuality he surely could not set his friend's poem without knowing about these other resonances.

Carty and Ware pace the song well, bringing out the refrain sense and never hurrying the drama. Ware is a very active partner and the textures of his piano playing contribute significantly. The result is a moving and rather poignant tale.

We stay in the realm of male sexuality with Ganymed, Schubert's setting of Goethe's poem is usually taken as personifying the union of the human with the divine, with its soaring vocal lines. But surely for Schubert and for his artistic circle, whatever the language of Goethe's poem, there would be the knowledge the Zeus had abducted the youth Ganymed because of his beauty and for purposes which were explicitly sexual. Read like this, the song's soaring lines can be a celebration not of the human with the divine, but the union of two men. All decently done via Greek mythology and Goethe of course. They take quite a sober view of the song with quite a discreet sense of ecstasy, yet characterful too with lovely sprung rhythms in the piano.

With Der Sommernacht we are on more ordinary territory (not that Schubert is ever ordinary), with the 1815 setting of poetry by Klopstock. But again, we are in the realms of the solitary, this time the poet wandering alone in the woods in a performance full of poignant intimacy. Romanze come from Schubert's music for Helmina von Chezy's unsuccessful play Rosamunde (at least everyone tells us it is unsuccessful, but it would be interesting to experience it and find out more, unfortunately it seems to be lost). Here Rosamunde's adoptive mother sings a song to the May moon. There is a delightful simplicity to this lovely lyrical ballad with its rocking motion in the piano.

When we move to Autumn, we keep the focus on the moon with An den Mond in einer Herbstnacht, a setting from 1818 of  words by Aloys Schreiber, whose poetry of Christian piety affected Schubert strongly for a brief period. And again, we have the lonely poet, distant from friends ... Carty's vocal line is poised and classically shaped, yet the perky piano part seems to offer a different sort of commentary to the sober vocal line.

With Litanei auf das Fest Allerseelen we move back to the complexities of Schubert's love life as the song, written in 1816, comes from the collection of songs Schubert made for his first love, Therese Grob whom Schubert wished to married (wished, or felt obliged because that is what his family expected, we will probably never know for certain). It should be pointed out that Schubert in 1816 was 19, an age when many young man remain emotionally confused, and that he could write such emotionally mature songs as this should not make us confuse things too much.

Despite the subject matter, there is something of the lyrical serenade about this song, though Carty and Ware give it a sense of quiet concentration and concentrated intensity.

With Winter, we turn to Ruckert (another poet whose work influenced Schubert strongly for a short period) and Greisengesang, written in 1823. The song of an old man in Winter who has only his dreams, Schubert creates a song of remarkable drama and complexity. The final small scale song is Der Winderabend from 1828, a setting of Karl Gottfried von Leitner which is imbued with great warmth, the narrator remembers with love his now lost beloved. Again we might wonder whether this poem had personal resonance for Schubert (1828 was his final year, and he knew he was fatally ill), but the genius of his music is that we don't need to know, it has resonance for us all. And Carty and Ware beautifully capture the songs sense of calm, acceptance and content.

Carty and Ware finish things with Klage der Ceres, written in 1815/1816 at a time when Schubert was studying with Antonio Salieri, and here we can detect the young man's operatic ambitions. Like many a composer he takes Schiller's long poem and creates a sequence of recitative, arioso and aria and welds it into something large scale as Ceres laments the loss of her daughter.  At first the influence of Haydn can be felt in the opening recitative with its highly active piano part, but the classical shape of much of Schubert's writing in the arias rather suggests the influence of Salieri, and the result is at times quite a sober piece where even Demeter's joy at the end is of a restrained classical variety.

Carty has a lovely even and rather direct mezzo-soprano voice, with enough depth of tone and bright hints to provide a wide variety of colours these songs. She takes care over the words, making them an important element in the music. For many of the songs she brings a lovely sculptural quality to the line, emphasising the classical nature of Schubert's writing. As I have said, Ware makes a very active partner, and his piano often complements or comments and throughout the two make a very fine partnership.

I have to confess that I was tempted to title this review 'Sex and the single man', but that is appallingly reductive given the superb emotional range of Schubert's songs. But I think that we are doing Schubert and his circle a disservice if we do not recognise that there was a strong vein of the homosexual or the homosocial in the circle, and that the young men at Schubert and Schober's Schubertiads may have recognised this running through the songs in a way which we do not always acknowledge.

This is an imaginative disc. Carty and Ware's programme takes us on highways and byways, providing a nicely structured programme with some very satisfying performances.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) - Viola D786 (1823)
Franz Schubert - Ganymed D544 (1817)
Franz Schubert - Die Sommernacht D289 (1815)
Franz Schubert - Romanze D797/3b (1823)
Franz Schubert - An den Mond in einer Harbstnacht D614 (1818)
Franz Schubert - Litanei auf das Fest Allerseelen D343 (1816)
Franz Schubert - Greisengesang D778 (1823)
Franz Schubert - Der Winterabend D938 (1828)
Franz Schubert - Klage der Ceres D323 (1815-16)
Sharon Carty (mezzo-soprano)
Jonathan Ware (piano)
Recorded in the Britten recording studio at Snape Maltings, 28 September - 1 October 2019
GENUIN classics GEN 20697 1CD [64.35]

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