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The recital was a trawl through settings of Schiller – a conception that might hold appeal on an intellectual level but which does not have a lot else in its favour. I probably should not have attended but I thought that perhaps these interpreters would be able to unlock the mystery of Schubert’s songs for me. Unfortunately, they did not.

The poems were lengthy, highly rhetorical and very carefully shaped. The question is what did Schubert think he might add by setting them to music? As so often with Schubert, the answer escapes me. Perhaps I thought that Maltman might be a persuasive advocate but, if anything, his deeply committed renditions showed that Schubert tended to work against the poetry. For example, Elysium is a highly structured account of how different types of people might react to death. It is a simple, repetitive rhetorical structure. Schubert wrecks that structure by setting each stanza very differently, with no attempt to impose a large-scale coherence. The smooth flow of text and mood is constantly disrupted by Schubert’s obsession with repeating words, phrases, lines, even whole couplets to no effect. And of course there was a plethora of musical image-making – you cannot have a reference to thunder without some musical rendition if you are Schubert. And he did so love his depictions of babbling brooks. As so often, he manages to efface the underlying qualities of the poem he is setting.

 

Das Geheimnis is perhaps the only one of these settings I might want to hear again and even that is marred by Schubert’s disrespect for the words.  The really odd thing perhaps was that the most interesting setting by far was by Schumann of a ballad called Der Handschuh.  This was by no means one of his best attempts at setting lengthy ballads but for the first time in this recital you felt that the words mattered to the composer and that he was not trying to outdo them.

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