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Perennial topics which have concerned Seen&Heard from its early days! Who needs translations of Lieder texts?

This has come up once again in connection with my visit to Tudor Records in Zurich. One of the CDs given to us for consideration was Aribert Reimann's Song Cycles after Schubert, Schumann, Brahms & Mendelssohn. It is a fascinating concept, one of those innovations which is obvious once it has been done. But reviewing the CD has entailed some extra work, because although its cover is entirely in English, no English translations of the texts are included. A few of them are easily come by - Goethe's Mignon poems and Heine's 'On Wings of Song' (as Mendelssohn's most popular song is commonly known) - but the songs selected are mostly uncommon and not easy to locate in the standard Lieder translations books.

If you go to the Wigmore Hall to hear a great singer in this repertoire, you will notice that many - perhaps most - people do not bother to follow the texts with translations assiduously provided there. Is it because they all speak German & find following sung language easy? I doubt it. Maybe it is because the poems are conventional and no longer speak to 21st Century readers and concertgoers? Certainly true for younger ones. But if you attend a Singers Competition or Master Class you will find that diction and interpretation of the text is treated as paramount. And so it clearly is for a composer like Aribert Reimann.

Reimann 's starting point is to question why the Lied has remained tied to the piano, with very few exceptions. He reminds us that 'arrangement' is much used for composition studies, and that recently composers like Berio, Holliger and Zender have undertaken similar projects. Hackles have been raised by Hans Zender's brave and radical "Composed Interpretation" of Schubert's Winterreise; brave because it predictably attracted hostile reactions for allegedly tampering with a hallowed masterpiece. However, it has been widely performed (in London with the London Sinfonietta) and recorded by Christoff Pregardien with the Klangforum Wien conducted by Sylvain Cambreling on (Kairos 0012002KAI); I recommend its addition to your collection of Winterreisen with piano.

As one of the finest accompanists (regularly with Fischer-Dieskau) Aribert Reimann knows the repertoire in depth, and on this project he has worked in various ways. It is safe to say, however, that the texts, in mood and in detail, have generated his treatments. The early (rarely heard) Mignon songs by Schubert are incorporated in a single quartet movement, with the songs linked organically. For late Schumann he has limited himself to interpreting in the strings what the piano suggests, and he 'only' arranges the given notes of some by Brahms too. With Mendelssohn he is far more interventionist, placing the songs in frames of his own contemporary idiom, finishing abruptly with a fragment (rather like does Bach's Art of Fugue) which he does not try to 'complete'. He veers from simple transcription via variation to new composition, leaving the listener to think more deeply than after playing through a conventional Lieder CD.

It is all beautifully done by Juliane Banse with the Cherubini Quartet. My enquiry to Tudor about availability of the texts (assuming they had been omitted for reasons of space) drew a friendly riposte; citing, by way of authority for their editorial decision not to provide them, the Beatles, who 'never allowed translations of their song texts' - "to translate lyrics is a wooden way". However, for those collectors who disagree, help is readily at hand. I was able to download useful English versions of most of the Mendelssohn songs, and some of the others, from Emily Ezust's extraordinary website An Archive of Texts to Lieder and other Classical Art Songs (2,565 Composers, 2,674 Poets), which is easy to navigate, and where I found translations of Reimann's selections by Marty Lucas, Ted Perry (Managing Director of Hyperion) and, would you believe it, Paul Hindemith, together with many by the indefatigable Emily herself. Some entries in her archive are poetic, others purely literal aids, leaving you completely free to enjoy the sound of the sung original languages.

That many in the recording industry do not take such a puritanical view (probably easier for the Swiss who are all impressively multilingual!) is exemplified by another CD just received also featuring Juliane Banse, charming in her allotted songs in Vol.5 of the Complete Lieder of Brahms. CPO does supply all the words with English translations, and I found those indispensable, otherwise one listens in an unfocused, generalised way and it is harder to maintain concentration. There are 204 solo songs extant plus 20 duets and 60 vocal quartets - just the thing to keep a record company going - 25 tracks here, comprising Op 58, 59 & 63, so I suppose we are about half way through the project. The recordings date from March 1996-October 1997, with the lion's share given to baritone Andreas Schmidt. There is sometimes a feeling that he was not totally engaged, nor always in best voice - not perhaps quite such an inspired labour of love, with revelations all along, as Schuchter's Schubert The Complete Solo Piano Works from the same Zurich source as the Reimann, a boxed set which has dominated our listening since returning from Switzerland (Tudor 741-752). Though this Brahms CD is less captivating than the Tudor box, it will probably sell well, because of the popularity of intégrales, and can be recommended as a useful acquisitions for music college, likely to help towards a more varied selection for recitals (CPO 999 445-2).

Peter Grahame Woolf

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