What might Schubert have made of his Swansong?
He know nothing of it when he died and might well have thought better of it when he was alive. Nobody knows what he intended to do with the seemingly disconnected songs he left behind and whether or not he envisaged collating them in any meaningful way. They might have formed the basis of one or more narrative cycles in the manner of Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, they might have languished in glorious isolation. But the enterprising Viennese publisher Tobias Haslinger saw the commercial potential in a commemorative cycle and Schwanengesang emerged as the distilled and fractured last utterances of a haunted soul. The poets, Rellstab and Heine, may have been new to Schubert; the themes of longing and loss were not.
But what makes this “opportunistic” cycle truly startling is the absence of a clear narrative. The drama is in the extreme juxtapositioning of songs whose irony, heartache, and distress emerge in often uncompromising starkness. “Uncompromising” might also describe Christopher Maltman’s disarmingly bitter and hectoring reading with Graham Johnson.
Disquiet and cynicism characterised even the seemingly benign opening song Liebesbotschaft (“Love’s Message”) with Maltman keeping the words artificially light on the breath and making even the whispered sweet nothings sound deceitful. The martial strains, the distant thunder, of Kriegers Ahnung (“Warrior’s foreboding”) struck a similarly ominous note with Maltman rising to one ferocious battle cry, the precursor to an untimely death. What terrible irony in the pay-off line “Sweetest love – good night!”
It had already become apparent, though, that Graham Johnson’s playing was proving uncharacteristically smudgy and bloated rhythmically. Ständchen (“Serenade”) lacked that essential lightness and airiness of touch and rendered the strumming of the poet’s lute or guitar awkward and charmless. No one understands this music better than Johnson but his fingers here were not always in accord with his sensibilities. And as the cycle progressed it became more and more apparent that Maltman, in his determination to wring out the extreme nature of these settings, was inclined towards a two-dimensional approach both in terms of their dynamics and their emotional compass: soft or loud; tender or angry.
Some things were startling: the complete change of voice into bass extension for Der Atlas (“Atlas”) and the stark unisons of Ihr Bild (“Her likeness”) melting into the agonising memory of his departed lover’s smile. But as Maltman’s poet came face to face with the misery of his other self in Der Doppelgänger his anguish might just have been concealing a deeper truth.