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Franz Schubert's final, painful days in November 1828 included bouts of delirium, requests for novels by James Fennimore Cooper, ceaseless singing and snatches of lucidity, when he actually worked on music.
Schubert had been seriously ill for about three years, but it's impossible to tell in the quantity and consistency of his compositions. In just his final 14 weeks, he wrote his last three piano sonatas (among his most transcendent), the heart-melting C-Major String Quintet, Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (The Shepherd on the Rock) and the 14 songs that came to be grouped — by his publisher — under the title Schwanengesang, a "Swansong" of sorts from a man who had written more than 600 songs in a truncated, 31-year life.
These final songs traverse myriad emotions. The lighthearted "Liebesbotschaft" (message of love), with its rippling accompaniment, addresses a murmuring brook with the hope of true love. The bone-chilling "Der Doppelgänger," with its stark, slowly tolling chords, finds the protagonist crazed with a nocturnal vision of himself agonizing at the empty doorstep of his lost love.
The best performances of Schubert songs come from singers and pianists who are completely in synch, like tenor Mark Padmore and pianist Paul Lewis. They understand keenly that the songs depend not only on their melodies but also on special effects in their accompaniments.
As in their previous recordings of Schubert's song cycles Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, Padmore and Lewis supply rich details yet retain a sense of spontaneity, like jazz players who can finish each other's phrases. But there's no second guessing Schubert. And it's obvious that these two have thought deeply through the music.
The familiar "Ständchen" (Serenade) is a good example. It's one of Schubert's Top-40 hits and has been crooned and arranged by thousands, who treat it as a light and breezy love song. Listen to Lewis and Padmore (above) and you'll know that it's not. As pianist Graham Johnson has pointed out, "the music is shot through with uncertainty and vulnerability, and it is this which makes it a quintessentially Schubertian creation."
The guitar-like plucked chords in the piano are the trembling heartbeat of the serenader. He makes tender entreaties at first (with fine colorations by Padmore), but passes through frustrated insistence to withered resignation. It was a serenade, for sure, but was ultimately a song sung for nothing. You can hear it in this recording as Padmore and Lewis carefully uncover the bitterness between Schubert's deceivingly sweet lines.