Schubert Swansong; On the River; The Shepherd on the Rock
John Tomlinson (bass); with Sophie Bevan (soprano), Julian Bliss (clarinet), Alec Frank-Gemmill (horn), Christopher Glynn (piano)
Signum SIGCD550 72:43 mins
This is the latest of Jeremy Sams’s translations of German songs, which have garnered many fans. Sams’s translations of Schwanengesang (here Swansong) work well, for the most part; he’s respectful without slavishness, and evidently familiar with the images and sentiments of German Romanticism. I personally missed the original German texts in the booklet – Sams’s texts are surely meant to communicate the poetry rather than supplant it entirely.
John Tomlinson is a national treasure, who continues to create new operatic roles. But despite his clear enunciation, his hefty sound is not ideal for Schubert. Yes, the songs are often bleak and gloomy, especially in these low transpositions. But the youthful, ardent character of ‘Leave-Taking’, ‘Love Message’ and ‘Pigeon Post’ is lost, the famous ‘Serenade’ (Ständchen) is agonisingly avuncular, while ‘The Fisher Maiden’ worryingly recalls Maurice Chevalier thanking heaven for little girls. ‘My Home’ or ‘Far Away’, which have fuller accompaniments, better suit his Wagner-ripened timbre. Two substantial obbligato songs close this recording. ‘On the River’ (with horn) and ‘The Shepherd on the Rock’ (with clarinet) are both recital and recording favourites. The creamy clarity of both Alec Frank-Gemmill’s horn and Julian Bliss’s clarinet sound is a perfect foil for Sophie Bevan’s exquisite, rounded legato. Unfortunately, Sams’s translation does not come across clearly. Chris Glynn, always a wonderfully responsive pianist, could be more prominent throughout. The recital therefore amounts to less than the sum of its parts; these individually outstanding musicians don’t fully gel with this music or each other.