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Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Schubert in English

Rowan Pierce (soprano), Roderick Williams (baritone), Christopher Glynn (piano)
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: November 2022
St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Simon Kiln
Engineered by Simon Kiln
Release date: November 2023
Total duration: 73 minutes 30 seconds

Cover artwork: Photograph © Nick White.

It is perhaps hard—for English-speaking audiences at least—to remember that Schubert composed his immortal songs to be heard 'in the vernacular'. Translator Jeremy Sams has here created English-language versions which are clearly a joy to perform.

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No songwriter has more to say to us than Schubert. With over 600 songs exploring all types and conditions of life, as well as much about death, his way with words and music has never been surpassed. And for all that it is possible to create fascinating programmes by drawing together songs on similar themes, there’s nothing quite like a miscellany to reveal the sheer breadth and depth of Schubert’s interests and sympathies. So this recital of twenty-one songs is (to borrow the title of a famous poetry anthology) unashamedly a rattlebag.

To say his poets were a mixed bunch is putting it mildly. At the top of the tree, Johan Wolfgang von Goethe, literary titan of his day. Schubert accorded him ‘unbounded respect’ but was just as likely to make a masterpiece from an amateur scribbler like Franz von Schober, a member of his own circle, in which almost everyone wrote verse.

He did so through a kind of alchemy that is hard to define. For the pianist Graham Johnson, a Schubert song is a kind of ‘commentary on a poem’. Ian Bostridge talks of ‘bodysnatching’—ripping the heart out of a poem and giving it back to us transformed. A famous Schubertian of an earlier era, Lotte Lehmann, describes a kind of ‘welding’ of words and music in which ‘the poet sings and the composer becomes poet’. And from Schubert’s own time, it’s hard to better the description of Josef von Spaun who observed, simply but brilliantly, that his good friend was in the business of composing ‘poems on poems’.

Those poems are recreated here in English by Jeremy Sams. His translations of Schubert’s song cycles were so warmly received—by audiences and artists alike—that it was natural to renew our collaboration by plunging into the world of Schubert’s standalone songs. A good translation is a pathway to the original, but also an offshoot from it. It accepts losses in the transit between tongues, and trades them for gains of immediacy, accessibility and storytelling. It is a retelling (and sometimes a revelation) but never a replacement. An act of homage that inevitably engages with what the songs mean to us today. And if one of the side-effects of hearing Schubert songs sung in English is to make the atmosphere around them a notch less reverential, then we shouldn’t forget that the quest for more informal modes of expression was a big part of the Romantic ideal, and the atmosphere at the average Schubertiade seems to have been closer to a modern-day open-mic night than a formal concert hall.

We offer this recital in that spirit, hoping to bring these songs to a new audience, as well as offering a different perspective to those who know them well.

Christopher Glynn © 2023

Translator’s note
This collection began with an intriguing conversation with Christopher Glynn about ‘Where next?’ Having worked together on the three great song cycles, Fair Maid of the Mill, Winter Journey and Swan Song we were itching to do more and incredibly we were still left with over 500 songs to choose from. So here are some gems we both love, famous songs we can’t do without, plus some adorably eccentric oddities.

But even this modest selection shows how sometimes simple poetry can move a great composer, in a happy hour, to make a masterpiece. And in any Schubert selection the same themes will emerge, clues to the psyche of a mysterious secretive man, solitary but surrounded by friends. He adored his pals, but most of all he loved nature, which is omnipresent in his song music.

A word about the words. I have tried to replicate the simplicity of the verse Schubert chooses for these masterpieces. There are great poets here, a couple of Goethes for a start. But for the most part the poetic skill is sometimes modest, sometimes even humdrum. The point, though, is how these verses moved the composer’s heart. And that we can hear in the magic he made from them.

Jeremy Sams © 2023

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