Review: 17 February 2019 Roderick Williams and Iain Burnside: Schubert Schwanengesang and other Lieder

This Sunday afternoon concert was a rare event, well-nigh perfect performances of music that is rarely less than profound. Schubert’s Schwanengesang comprises an assortment of songs composed in the year of his death, presented as a song-cycle in its posthumous publication. Williams breaks the set into four groups by interleaving other, earlier Schubert Lieder; the last song, Der Taubenpost, formed a coda to the recital. However, this arrangement emphasised the stylistic and emotional coherence of the Schwanengesang collection, for the earlier songs, such as Liebhaber (‘love in all guises’), or the almost folksy Die Einsame (‘the hermit’), tended to be simpler in style and looser in structure. As Williams pointed out in his introduction, the economy and intensity of the last songs, such as the eerily ominous Die Stadt, the deceptively calm Am Meer, and the spectral, despairing Der Doppelganger, anticipates Wolf and Webern (whose early songs it would be wonderful to hear in Malvern): each is a miracle of intense expressive power achieved in miniature through rigorous control of musical resources.

Control also proved the key to the performances. The strong gestures were emphatic but never excessive, the quieter passages moving but without sentimentality. Burnside’s accompaniments were equally measured, a perfect balance between classical poise and Romantic expression. Both musicians derived their interpretations from deep study of the song texts, and in particular of their sonic properties: in Ihr Bild (‘her image’), the expressive colour of the penultimate phrase derives from the wan colour of the key word, ‘Tränen’ (tears), whilst the closing phrase was entirely matched the darker hue of its key word, ‘glauben’. Throughout the recital, Williams’s German diction was crystal clear: the sounds of the German language, he shows, are absolutely integral to this music.

The encore was Finzi’s Fear no more the heat of the sun, movingly presented as a memorial to the late Ernie Kay.

Professor Peter Johnson

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