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Schubert: Schwanengesang - Rutherford, Asti

Schubert: Schwanengesang - Rutherford, Asti

BIS  BIS-2180

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Vocal


Schubert: Schwanengesang, D. 957; Herbst, D. 945; Die Forelle, D. 550; Auf der Bruck, D. 853; Gruppe aus dem Tartarus, D. 583; An die Musik, D. 547

James Rutherford (baritone)
Eugene Asti (piano)

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Review by John Miller - March 26, 2016

Quite appropriately called "Swan Song", Schubert's D.957 is a publisher's post-mortem collation of Lieder which Schubert composed in his final year, 1828. It is not, however, a cycle. From Schubert's favoured contemporary poets there are three groups of Lied; eight by Ludwig Rellstab, six by Heinrich Heine and one by Johann Gabriel Seidl. These were not regarded as first-class poets in the artistic ambience of Biedermeier Vienna, rather it was natural for Schubert to treat his friends who were poets, painters or composers with mutual respect - give them a gift of friendship. In Schubert's manuscript, the Rellstab and Heine songs were not numbered, nor was there a title page. The initial publisher added Seidl's Die Taubenpost (performers sometimes include another song of Seidl's, Herbst, as here). Rutherford and Asti conclude Schwanengesang on this programme with four varied "favourite" lieder, the final one aptly being An die Musik ("To Music"), happily the Lied which first initiated my love of Schubert's works.

In Schubert's hand, Schwanengesang was written in two versions; for "alt" (soprano) and "bass" (i.e. tenor) voices. This presented some problems for a baritone such as Rutherford, as neither of the original transcriptions entirely suited his vocal range and preferred "colour" for each song. He and Eugene Asti, long time his pianist, began performing extracts from the work some 15 years ago, changing keys and transposing, but for this performance they decided to make their own transposition, "dropping all by a third" as Rutherford notes in his preface of the booklet. Further, in their research they found "that no baritone recording of Schwanengesang followed the same progression as the original 'tenor' keys". Also, in their study of Schubert's MSS, they discovered that a number of editors had failed to follow some of the composer's instructions, for example putting diminuendi where Schubert had written accents. The result of all this preparation for the BIS recording is a unique and more truthful rendition of this ingratiating and dramatic Lieder collection. Indeed this account has a certain freshness which is most satisfactory.

From the paragraph above, it is evident that Rutherford and Asti are both perceptive, probing artists of similar mind. Not surprisingly, their work in this project produces deeply satisfying accounts of the songs in hand. The first few moments of Schwanengesang immediately catch our ear, with Asti's haunting velvety pianistic touch which makes a lovely impression in the gorgeous acoustic of Potton Hall, Suffolk. Asti studied with Graham Johnson, who has been described as "the one-man powerhouse behind a remarkable flowering of accompanied performance". Rutherford's rich baritone has an unusual range, from deep and dark to light and open, well-known from his opera appearances. He unerringly captures the drama and emotion extracted by Schubert from his chosen poets. Such coherence of pianist and singer makes them a true duet rather than an just an "accompanied performance".

Rutherford's repertoire of songs and lieder sports knowledge of no less than six languages. German, with its short and long vowel sounds, doubled consonants and prominent unvoiced sibilants, fricatives and plosives seems to be used by Rutherword to skilfully illuminate the Lieder poetry, adding character and emotion to the music. However, I was disturbed by some sibilants, which are over-loud and stand out on a vocal line. This only happens when the voice is reaching a climax. In quieter passages, the sibilants are natural and fit the lines smoothly. However, there are some of these "odd" sibilants in many of the songs. A clear example is Heine's Am Meer ("By the Sea"), rendered at first with quiet glowing, floating expression, including normal-sounding sibilants, but the last two verses are agonised and louder - and the sibilants stand out and are "odd" sounding. Such odd sibilants can be temporarily caused by some dental or other mouth or throat conditions, and I didn't hear it in a previous review I made of his singing (Most Grand to Die - Rutherford, Asti). Hall acoustics and placing of microphones can also be factors of recording, tending to catch unusual sibilants. While this phenomenon did somewhat disturb my hearing of Rutherford's lines, it did not offend my personal respect and enjoyment of this excellent performance.

BIS supplies its SACD booklet with the usual three European languages and full texts in German and English (although in a tiny font). Susan Youens, expert in the late works of Schubert, adds an insightful essay. Sonics are top of the BIS range. At the time of writing, this Schwanengesang is the only complete HR version, except for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's (Schubert: Schwanengesang - Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau#), which is one of one of his no less than eight recordings, showing how important Schubert's post-mortem collection is for many top-rate singers. Despite the sibilants, Rutherford's newly researched baritone version, with Asti's exemplary pianism, is well-worth collecting.

Copyright © 2016 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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