Unlike his other great song cycles, Die schne Mllerin and Winterreise, Schubert never actually wrote Schwanengesang!When he died in 1828 he left behind a collection of Lieder based on the writings of the contemporary poets Ludwig Rellstab, Heinrich Heine and Johann Gabriel Seidl.
Viennese publisher, Tobias Haslinger, put these works, which may have been intended for separate collections, together to form the Schwanengesang that we know today. He was keen to exploit the songs’ commercial potential, but nevertheless he displayed a profound understanding of how best they might be heard together. The same could be said of baritone Christopher Maltman, and pianist Graham Johnson, as they performed them at the Wigmore Hall.
A coherent approach was applied to the cycle as a whole, whilst each song was handed its own sense of individuality. The first songs were all set to texts by Ludwig Rellstab, and with Maltman and Johnson rehearsed to perfection, the opening Liebesbotschaft saw the singer apply the lightest and most sensitive of touches to the music. The sound was so rounded that it appeared as if it was being sucked into his mouth rather than produced from it, a sure sign of superlative vocal technique.
I momentarily wondered where anyone could go after such a perfect opening, but Maltman soon provided the answer. Maintaining the same brilliance of tone, he moved from the first song’s message of love to convey the total despair of the Kriegers Ahnung at seeing dead brothers-in-arms. With the piano echoing’ the vocal line, the second verse demonstrated an insular sadness before the voice expanded to present the most full, yet technically precise, sound.
The cycle continued in this multi-textured vein. Frhlings-Sehnsucht was bright and sprightly, Maltman wearing a smile that spoke of joyful renewal. Stndchen was full of melancholic anticipation, the baritone’s arm resting on the piano, whilst Aufenthalt was packed with anxiety, expressed both loudly and softly. Just when I really thought there was nothing else that Maltman might demonstrate in his voice, his performance of In der Ferne encapsulated everything that is great about it, the sound being clean, resonant and, oh so, broad.
The cycle itself was also responsible for the joyous sense of variation experienced. As the Rellstab cycle’ gave way to the songs based on Heinrich Heine’s texts, the gravity and foreboding inherent in many of them allowed Maltman to explore yet another level to his voice. But just when the mood couldn’t have got any heavier, with the haunting tones of Der Doppelgnger, we received perhaps the greatest surprise of them all. The cycle ended with a song, set to a text by Johann Gabriel Seidl, all about a carrier pigeon.
As with Maltman and Johnson’s performances of Die schne Mllerin in November 2009 and Winterreise in February 2010, this recital was recorded for CD release on the Wigmore Hall’s own label.