Franz Schubert:  Schwanengesang D957; Herbst D945 & Der Winterabend D938

Robert Holl (bass-baritone); Roger Vignoles (piano) (Hyperion CDA67657)

22 October 2008 3 stars

Schwanengesang HollThis recording of Schwanengesang was made in London over three days in January 2008 and I found myself wondering, the third time I listened through the CD, which of the songs had been recorded on which day. For there are marked differences to the tonal qualities of Holl's voice as the 'cycle' progresses: at times he sounds gloriously in form, and absolutely at one with music and text, at others there are tiny indications of strain, of momentary problems of intonation in the higher register. This does not necessarily detract from the quality of this CD as a record of performance: indeed, Holl brings character, passion and intelligence to every song that he sings. But the effect is a long way from the sheer beauty of sound that characterised some (not all) of Fischer-Dieskau's recorded interpretations of Schubert's last collection of songs.

Holl has a big, dark voice: there is flint in the lower register and smooth passage to a lovely, focused middle. The sound is at its best in the last, additional song in the 'cycle' – Die Taubenpost to words by Johann Gabriel Seidl – or in the last of the Ludwig Rellstab poems to be set, Der Abschied. In both of these songs Holl displays a charming light touch and sounds completely at home with the setting, the acoustic and – most important of all – his assured and equally characterful accompanist, Roger Vignoles. 

But if Schwanengesang has its lighter side, it is not really 'about' the lover trotting off cheerfully with a wave of his hand and a long 'Ade' or about the charms of pigeon post. It is about grief, love and separation. And here Holl and Vignoles come into their own with some thrilling, dramatic sound and some intensely dramatic effects. When Holl sings of his pain being like age-old ore in the rock (in number 5, Aufenthalt) the sound of the words 'Und wie des Felsen/Uraltes Erz' is simply magnificent. And sorrow is etched in the voice as he sings Der Atlas – the man who bears the weight of all the world's sorrows, a dark and dramatic reading that I found completely convincing. Die Stadt, number 11 in the cycle has most of the drama in its sparse, eerie accompaniment, tautly drawn by Vignoles. And number 9, Ihr Bild, has drama in miniature as Holls sings of his lover's portrait apparently coming to life until he sings, and the accompaniment confirms in the minor key coda, that she has been lost – here Holl summons lovely, warm tone for his own excursions into the major key passages. 

I have nothing but praise for the serious, informative way that Hyperion present their song cycle releases. This Schwanengesang has a booklet with a well-argued, thought-provoking introductory essay by Vignoles himself, making about as good a case as can be made for the musical and textual continuity in the work that allows us to think of it as a song cycle (although it started life 'only' as a posthumous collection of Schubert's final song settings, published by Tobias Haslinger). And as performed by Holl and Vignoles there is less of a jolt than I have sometimes experienced in the concert hall as we move from the last Rellstab poem, Abschied, and into the tauter, denser world of Heinrich Heine. Perhaps numbers 5 to 10 were recorded in a single session, for they certainly hang together well and make a coherent whole.

Reviewing my notes, I see that most of my (minor) reservations actually come in the first four songs. Liebesbotschaft starts the cycle and Vignoles sets a steady pace (slightly too lethargic?), allowing Holl's lower register to resonate effectively at all the right moments. But the top of the voice is not quite there for me, the tone slightly breathy. In the next song, Kriegers Ahnung, I found myself listening to the vibrato in the words Der Wehmut Träne quillt – less might have been more here, and I was not really convinced by Holl's excursions into soft falsetto at the high end of his range. I liked number 3, Frühlingssehnsucht, with Holl embellishing the final question in each stanza (Wohin?… Hinab?… Warum?) with a minor/major apoggiatura in a completely convincing way. But then we come to Ständchen, the most famous tune in the work, and I found myself longing for a more legato line, a greater feeling of cohesion: for me, in this song, Holl's technique slightly lets him down.

Those are my reservations about this CD. Compared with the whole experience of listening to a powerful singer, dark, sonorous and vividly dramatic at all the right moments in these glorious songs, Schubert's own swan-song to the Lied as it were, I don't feel that they count for all that much. I shall certainly have this CD on my shelf and renew my acquaintance with it from time to time. For Holl sings with character, and in Schwanengesang, character counts for just as much as sheer beauty of tone. The two additional tracks, both from that miraculous last year of Schubert's life, 1828, are a welcome bonus.

By Mike Reynolds