A Magical ‘Swansong’ from Sir John Tomlinson

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert: Sir John Tomlinson (bass), Christopher Glynn (piano). Wigmore Hall, 11.12.2016. (CC)

Schubert  Schwanengesang, D957, sung in English as ‘Swansong’ (tr. Jeremy Sams)

A bit unclear from the Wigmore’s documentation as to whether this was the world premiere of Jeremy Sams’s translation of Schwanengesang into English (as given on the A4 sheet of paper in lieu of a programme) or whether it was the London premiere (as given on the song sheet purchasable for £1.50). It was an important event whichever way. Perhaps the whole afternoon was about mysteries and compromises: we got to hear Schubert out of the original language, yet the encore was Wagner in German (a terrific excerpt from Das Rheingold, from ‘Vollendet das Ewige Werk …’ with the neatest of cuts so Sir John Tomlinson didn’t have to go into falsetto for Fricka’s ‘Was deutet die Name?’). And the encore itself was compromised, inevitably, by having the orchestral part in reduction; it should be said that Tomlinson was magnificent, especially at the full-bodied ‘Folge mir, Frau’.

Yet there is no denying that Tomlinson is a great singer in the true sense of the word. Perhaps surprisingly, he used music (individual sheets for each song parked on a music stand at the side of the stage), and used the various parts of the stage to suggest varying degrees of intimacy and distance. There was one moment, in ‘Serenade’ (Ständchen) when Tomlinson seemed to be wanting to make eye contact with the audience, but kept on having to look down to the page; yet close one’s eyes, and all was well. He had a splendid young accompanist in Christopher Glynn, a young player of huge sensitivity. One perfect example of Glynn’s intelligence was the way he terraced the opening of ‘Far Away’ (In der Ferne); another the superbly clean staccato bass of ‘Leave Taking’ (Abschied). Later in the latter song, Tomlinson took some expressive liberties with the line and, notably, at each one Glynn was right there with him.

The clear bond between the two musicians was clear in ‘Love’s Message’ (Liebesbotschaft). Glynn’s playing was individual and certainly not subservient to Tomlinson; almost in response, Tomlinson’s voice was in full, fine form. The first seven songs are to poems by Rellstab, and Sams’ translation is generally good. There were a couple of awkward moments in the first song (‘And when you speak’ and ‘the ones she loves best’ were both rather squashed in). One has to ask whether this is work in progress as a translation, too, as there was the odd difference between the printed text and what was delivered. The most glaring of these was the first stanza of ‘Her Picture’ (Ihr Bild), which was completely different from the printed version. Are the differences tied in with the confusion as to whether or not this performance had the distinction of being the world premiere, I wonder?

The performance itself was magical throughout, transcending all my previous quibbles, and, for that matter, those to come (see the last paragraph of this review). The second song, ‘The Warrior’s Foreboding’ (Kriegers Ahnung) found Tomlinson almost in Sprechgesang over a wonderfully dark piano, then finding the most gorgeous of phrasing at ‘My head upon her breast’. His legato in ‘My Home’ (Aufenthalt) at ‘Just like the ceaseless wind in the trees’ was a true highlight, as was his imperious delivery of the earlier parts of this song. Both musicians found a huge sound for Atlas’ opening (the first of the six songs to texts by Heine); both, too, found perfect simplicity in ‘The Fisher Maiden’ (Das Fischermädchen). If there was one song that made me pine of a follow-on concert in the evening of Tomlinson’s Winterreise, it was ‘The Town’ (Die Stadt). Piano bass like a bass drum, treble like wind in the trees followed by Tomlinson’s sense of desolation and regret.

Every now and then, Tomlinson’s voice thinned to a thread, raw and dry its appearance at crux points in ‘By the Sea’ (Am Meer) convinced this writer that these were absolutely deliberate, and deliberately uncomfortable to listen to.

The final song is to a text by Johann Gabriel Seidl. Entitled ‘Pigeon Post’ (Die Taubenpost) it is one of Schubert’s most delicious unfoldings, here superbly characterised. The text itself has quotation marks around the word ‘longing’, and just by the lightest hesitation Sir John Tomlinson made us hear them. Simply superb.

I do need to question the Wigmore’s policy on latecomers. Schwanengesang is a piece that benefits from complete concentration throughout, and the start time was clearly advertised as 3pm. Still, the ushers let audience members in not just after the first song, but between the second and third songs as well; therefore, it took until at least four songs in for the atmosphere in the hall to settle. That does neither performers nor already seated audience members no favours at all. Surely it is the equivalent of those intensely irritating people who hold the closing doors London tube trains because they want to get on (even though there is another train due within a minute), thus holding up the hundreds already on the train for the benefit of one or two. But this is the sublimity of Schubert we are talking about, not a train, and in a performance by a truly great singer. Some respect, surely?

Colin Clarke

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