At the risk of sounding nostalgic, the power of a song recital is in its mix of intimacy and imagination, and both are very much present in this new release. The title—Schubert’s Four Seasons—is apt and intriguing, and possibly a little ironic. Unlike Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, this is not so much a set of assorted showpieces and musical postcards as an intense engagement with ideas of time, growth, and loss, as seen through the lens of Franz Schubert’s songs.
Mezzo soprano Sharon Carty and pianist Jonathan Ware take the listener through a cycle of songs of their own devising, following a path from the beginning of spring to the end of winter in a selection of mostly lesser-known material. Far from being another dutiful trawl through the short-list of familiar pieces, we hear works from across Schubert’s career, inviting us to approach his output and artistic vision with fresh ears.
The pieces at both beginning and end take the idea of what a song is to its extremes, each of them extended exercises that are more like solo cantatas. ‘Viola’, the opening number, concerns the miniature (and surely symbolic) tragedy of a violet, blooming before its time, bursting into the world only to be traumatised by wintry storms and isolation.
As T.S. Eliot would put it a century later, for this bud April really is the cruellest month. The imagery of the song’s irregular refrain (first joyful ringing, to finally tolling a death-knell) is well-matched by the vivid bell-like tone of Sharon Carty’s voice, always clear and responsive to both music and poetry. Matching her on this dark journey, Jonathan Ware’s playing is keen and incisive, characterful and transparent by turns.
This is a recording to spend time with, and repays repeated listening. The sinewy curls of ‘Ganymed’ and the sweet lyricism of ‘Romanze’ alternate with the moonlit confessionals of ‘Die Sommernacht’ (Summer Night) and ‘An den Mond in Herbstnacht’ (To the Moon on an Autumn Night), coolly reflective and wistful. The singing at times may seem almost understated, as if missing the immediate engagement of a live audience, but any concerns are soon swept away as the momentum and inner drama of the poetry take hold.
As a mezzo soprano, Carty has plenty of experience in theatrical cross-dressing, and brings this into the recital room with the wintry pairing of ‘Greisengesang’ (Song of the Aged Man) and ‘Der Winterabend’ (Winter Evening). Up until recently, hearing ‘Greisengesang’—one of Schubert’s few bass-clef songs—in a higher voice might have raised eyebrows, but here it sheds fresh light onto this ambiguous piece, as well as raising new possibilities, with Carty’s clarion-like fanfares in the closing bars perhaps evoking the subject’s inner, youthful, spirit. Pairing this with the late ‘Winterabend’ allows Ware the additional opportunity to show how closely this material recalls other piano-writing of Schubert’s final year, while giving due recognition to this strangely under-performed song.
As with the opening piece, the set closes with an extended work for voice and piano. This is ‘Klage der Ceres’ (Ceres’ Lament), a setting of Friedrich Schiller’s meditation on the mythical grief of harvest-goddess Ceres for her daughter Proserpina. Abducted by the god of the dead to be his wife, Proserpina’s six-monthly stints in the underworld led Ceres to divide the year into seasons. In this piece, we encounter her on the eve of spring, anxiously awaiting her daughter’s return. Like an operatic scene, this extended moment with the goddess takes the listener through a whole range of emotions and styles, and is given a compelling performance here. Schubert’s operatic output is slowly receiving belated recognition, and hearing this work only makes us eager to experience more material like it.
Ceres rails against the fate that has left her bereft and abandoned in time, one not hard to compare with present-day realities. Gathering together a remarkable programme, and performing it with style and sensitivity, Sharon Carty and Jonathan Ware create something very special. Intriguing, thought-provoking – and timely.
Images © Frances Marshall Photography