Unlike the song cycles Die Schöne Müllerin (1823) and Winterreise (1827), you won’t find Schubert’s posthumously published song collection Schwanengesang (Swan Song) in a top-10 list of “greatest of all song cycles with piano accompaniment,” such as the one published by Gramophone magazine in 2014.
And even though Gramophone’s list is an arguably arbitrary one, it says something about the popularity of Schwanengesang — and about the chances of hearing it in a live performance.
For this and for many other reasons it was a delight to attend the June 9 recital by bass Anthony Reed and pianist John Parr. It was the closing performance of the 2016–17 Liederabend Series, presented by Lieder Alive! at the charming and intimate Noe Valley Ministry in San Francisco.
In the strict sense of the word, Schwanengesang is not a song cycle. It is based on poetry from three different authors, there is no narrative thread, and it is not even clear if Schubert intended the songs to be issued together in the first place.
The collection was assembled in 1829 by his music publisher, a few months after Schubert’s death at the tender age of 31. The publisher, Tobias Haslinger, also named the collection Schwanengesang. Its final lied, Die Taubenpost (The Pigeon Post) is presumably the last piece that Schubert ever wrote.
Anthony Reed is a third-year San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow, whose resume is understandably heavy on opera roles and concert-stage repertoire. His sound is clear and resonant; his range generous and relatively even, with a nice deep register; and he has an amiable stage presence, near-impeccable pronunciation of German, and lots of power.
All this was especially apparent during the moments that the recital truly sparkled, when soloist and accompanist found each other and together created true musical beauty, such as in Abschied (Farewell), in which the protagonist says farewell to a town in which he lost “what was dearest.”
Another fine moment was Frühlingssehnsucht (Springtime Longing), where an unnamed narrator finds himself experiencing episodes of deep melancholy amid the beauty of nature.
Reed brought the poetry to life over the rippling and restless chords that evoked rustling winds and babbling brooks from accompanist and Lieder Alive!’s master coach, pianist John Parr.
Parr must have contributed more to the recital than just his expert skills as collaborating pianist. More than anything else, his onstage comportment with Reed suggested a mentor/student relationship, which is completely in line with the mission of Lieder Alive!: “reinvigorating the teaching, performance, and appreciation of German lieder.”
Unfortunately, there were a few moments where the recital ran short of expectations. Reed made at least one major text fumble at a crucial point in Am Meer (By the Sea), and he sometimes also let his considerable musical powers overwhelm the size and atmosphere of the room, which transcended the level of intimacy that I associate with song recitals in general.
As Reed matures as an artist and makes Schwanengesang and other recital repertoire more his own, he will no doubt dig deeper into the stillness of the score — its small gestures and the introspection and contemplation that are also part of Schubert’s immortal lieder.