PERFORMER: Thomas Quasthoff (baritone) Justus Zeyen (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 471 030-2
With the exception of Bryn Terfel, who recorded a splendid Schwanengesang on the Welsh label Sain early in his career, singers tend not to rush into print, as it were, with Schubert’s great last songs. Thomas Quasthoff has waited, and his timing is right: his warm, full baritone, with its new lean focus and lithe movement, is in fine form, his interpretative insights deepening apace. Lively rhythmic articulation is folded effortlessly into the warm air currents of ‘Liebesbotschaft’: enunciation is, indeed, more easeful, less ‘singerly’ than in Fischer-Dieskau’s important 1972 performance with Gerald Moore.
The tender poignancy of the questionings of ‘Frühlingssehnsucht’ seems to me nearer the mark than Brigitte Fassbaender’s impassioned enquiries which typify the high-octane level of her formidable 1992 recording. Quasthoff, taking the gentle pleading of ‘Ständchen’ as his cue, emphasises the intimacy of the Rellstab settings, and reminds us of Schubert’s Italian muse – rather as Wolfgang Holzmair did in his 1994 recording with Imogen Cooper. In the more starkly expressive Heine settings, Quasthoff retains his brisk tempi, preferring to define the mighty strength of ‘Der Atlas’ through its inner rhythmic energy rather than through histrionic projection. The sheer simplicity of his ‘Am Meer’ is deeply affecting; but Quasthoff slightly underplays Heine’s fever and Schubert’s answering fret, just missing the sharp intensity of the ‘spirit dying of desire’. It’s here that Holzmair just has the edge: these final songs of strange mirage-like visions and deep soul-ache are uniquely compelling in his performance, not least because of the piano-playing of Imogen Cooper, more emotive and much better recorded than the albeit perceptive accompanying of Justus Zeyen. Holzmair puts Schwanengesang into the context of further settings of Rellstab and of Seidl; Quasthoff complements the Schubert with a deeply moving performance of Brahms’s Four Serious Songs. Hilary Finch