Schubert at St Andrew’s
(Wellington’s answer to the famous Austrian Schubertiade at Hohenems and Schwarzenberg)
Diedre Irons (piano), Richard Greager (tenor)
Piano Sonata in A minor, D 784; Moments musicaux, D 780
The Heine songs from Schwanengesang D 957
St Andrew’s on The Terrace
Saturday 4 June, 6:30 pm
The weather assorted poorly with Schubert’s anguished, obsessional Sonata in A minor. It had been sunny and calm, though cold; but the music was penetrated with sudden squally gales and dark clouds, broken by only brief shafts of light and fleeting moments of repose. Diedre Irons understood, as her programme note made clear, how the tragic illness revealed in 1823 must have affected his music. Though she responded to the relative peacefulness in much of the enigmatic Andante, she understood Schubert’s black mood and handled it powerfully in the first and last movements: the emphatic fortissimo chords, punctuated by short gentler phases. And she maintained the compulsive pulse throughout.
While the Andante’s tone is generally more calm, a fearfulness, even despair, remains near the surface, and the relentless wind howling through the streets seemed to dominate the atmosphere of this great work whose nearest models must be heard among Beethoven’s sonatas.
The Moments Musicaux (oddly, Schubert’s French appears not his strongest suit as he called them ‘Six Momens musicals’) were in sharp contrast to the sonata, though one of Irons’s gifts is to give expression to the unease and pain that can be heard at times, as in the Andantino or the fifth Moment, Allegro vivace.
The last of the pieces, Allegretto, seemed to illustrate the word Sehnsucht (longing) that, as a student, I came to feel represented the prevailing tone of German Romanticism. It seemed to be the most used word in the Sturm und Drang and Romantic poetry from Schiller, Goethe and Körner onwards.
However, it was a rare treat to have them played in sequence, just as it was the sequence of songs that Richard Greager sang next.
Schwanengesang – the last collection
It was an imaginative stroke to lift the Heine songs from Schwanengesang (Swan Song) and present them in the order in which they are found in one of Heine’s early collections of poetry, Die Heimkehr, which a year later was included in the big collection, Buch der Lieder, published in 1827. So it was published only a year before Schubert set these six poems, showing how immediately Heine’s verse took root. However, they are the only Heine poems that he used and there is some opinion that Schubert did not find his poetry congenial, one critic suggesting that Schubert “rejected Heine’s ironic nihilism and would not have set more had he lived longer”.
It is probably tempting to feel that these Heine songs evoked music of more interest and depth than his settings of more minor poets, but I don’t think today there is much support for that, considering that almost all the best known and most loved songs are not set to great poetry, apart from those by Goethe.
Though in his introductory remarks Richard Greager suggested that some linkage between the songs was to be better observed in the original order, I must confess that I couldn’t detect any hint of a narrative or a theme in common, other than the afore-mentioned ‘ironic nihilism’. That did however, give these songs a tone in common.
The first song, ‘Das Fischermädchen’, made quite an impact, not on account of any high drama, but through the vivid piano part and with the unusual intensity of Greager’s tenor voice which seemed straight away to capture the edginess of the song with Heine’s typical message that nothing is quite as innocent or as blissful as it might first appear.
The next two, ‘Am Meer’ (On the sea) and ‘Die Stadt’ (The town), were touched by mystery, death, water, and when the sun does shine, it is to reveal the place where his love drowned; trembling, poignant. One noticed how careful was his phrasing and the refinement of his breath control; with striking support from Irons’s rushing arpeggios in ‘Die Stadt’.
‘Doppelgänger’ and ‘Atlas’
Then came a song with an arresting title, which has been engraved on my mind perhaps more than the sound of the song itself: ‘Der Doppelgänger’ (The Double). I’ve been watching a rather engrossing BBC TV documentary on the age of the Gothic revival, not just in architecture, but also in writing, music and the visual arts that dealt with horror and depravity, the daemonic, the supernatural, the irreligious, and here was a song that represented the supernatural in German poetry. The chilling bass piano chords illuminated the poet’s enigmatic loss of his love (‘mein Schatz’) in the vision of a pale ghost, his ‘double’, through the words, the music, and Greager’s singing, and most impressively Diedre Irons’s piano.
‘Ihr Bild’ (Her picture) is an elegiac piece with the poet contemplating his lost love, a calm, unhistrionic song. ‘Der Atlas’, about the afflicted Greek proto-god, of the race of Titans who were defeated by Zeus and his race, and punished with the task of supporting the heavens and earth. It’s pithy, but I have always felt it as a rather inadequate account of the monstrous fate of a giant. Schubert invested it with considerable weight and mythic significance and so did Irons’s big piano presence alongside Greager.
Finally, the un-Heine-ish poem, ‘Die Taubenpost’ (Pigeon Post) by Johan Gabriel Seidl, which is not only reputedly Schubert’s last song, but also the last in ‘Schwanengesang’. After the dubiously metaphysical creations of Heine, this is a plain, old-fashioned lyric by an ordinary and unpretentious poet, and Greager and Irons succeeded in lightening the atmosphere in the church with optimism and a belief in human goodness, in the face of climate change and the economic and social catastrophes facing today’s world.
Regardless of this reviewer’s irrelevant political preoccupations, this was a lovely concert, balanced between powerful and lyrical piano music and beautifully performed songs from the last days of Schubert’s life.