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Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

RECORDING OF THE MONTH

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RECORDING OF THE MONTH - Franz Peter SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Lieder with Orchestra: Rosamunde – Romanze, D797 No. 3a (1823) [3’17]. Die Forelle, D550a (orch. Britten) [2’21]. Ellens Zweiter Gesang, D838a (orch. Brahms) [3’07]. Gretchen am Spinnrade, D118a (arr. Reger) [3’26]. An Silvia, D891a (orch. anon) [2’59]. Im Abendrot, D799a [3’45]. Nacht und Träume, D827a [3’44]. Gruppe aus Tartarus, D583a [3’04] (all arr. Reger). Erlkönig, D328a (arr. Berlioz) [4’02]. Die junge Nonne, D828a [4’45] (arr. Liszt). Die schöne Müllerin, D795 – No. 10, Tränenregenb. Die Winterreise, D911 – No. 20, Der Wegweiserb. Du bist die Ruh’, D776b. Schwanengesang, D957 – No. 9, Ihr Bildb (all arr. Webern). Prometheus, D674b (arr. Reger). Memnon, D541b. An Schwager Kronos, D369b (both arr. Brahms). An die Musik, D547b. Erlkönig, D328b (both arr. Reger). Geheimes, D719a (arr. Brahms). Schwanengesang, D957 – No. 4, Stänchenb (arr. Offenbach).
aAnne Sofie von Otter (mezzo); bThomas Quasthoff (bass-baritone)
Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Claudio Abbado.
Rec. live, Grand Salle, Cité de la musique, Paris, in May 2002. DDD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 471 586-2 [72’44]

This is a fascinating endeavour. Orchestrations of Schubert songs by a clutch of respected composers feature here (with one exception – ‘Anon’ makes a token appearance in the arrangement of the ever-popular An Sylvia: obviously a sensitive ‘anonymous’ here, producing a stunningly harmless three minutes of string-dominated textures which underpin Otter’s confident lyricism).

A good idea to start with the only original item on the whole album, too. The Romanze, D797/3b stems from the incidental music to Rosamunde. Otter sets the tone by producing a lovely legato, setting up our point of departure. In fact, the first ten items are given to Otter, the ensuing nine to Quasthoff (plus one encore each). The first arrangement comes from the pen of Benjamin Britten, of one of the most popular songs, Die Forelle. Britten had a great affection for Schubert, and a great affinity to his music. He handles the song with great delicacy and respect, but also with imagination and with consummate taste (liquid clarinet figures implying piscine movement, for example). This is pure delight, especially with the characterful clarinettist of the COE in fine form.

Arrangements by Johannes Brahms and Max Reger are featured in both singers’ selections. Brahms’ orchestral expansion of Ellens Zweiter Gesang features the horn calls you can just imagine the fingers of a Gerald Moore invoking so memorably at the keyboard (a strange aural inversion here!). The effect is perhaps a little disconcerting, to have the implicit rendered so expertly explicit, but it emerges in the final analysis as a true meeting of minds. Max Reger, when it comes to Schubert, is evidently of a more overtly Romantic bent. Grethchen’s spinning wheel is string-based, with woodwind doublings adding to the pathos and longing of the text. Perhaps the effect is that bit too cushioned: the voice is carried along on a cushion of sound, perhaps a trifle too comfortably. Abbado moves the tempo on in an effort to heighten intensity as the imagined kiss approaches at 1’50 and again at the kiss-fixated area around 3’00.

Perhaps here is not the time or place for a further call for a reappraisal of the talents of Max Reger, but the four arrangements sung by von Otter provide an excuse. The orchestration of Im Abendrot is (appropriately, given the title) positively glowing - the glow of faith-suffused prayer; the words of Nacht und Träume emerge on a bed of ululating sound; and, just to prove its not all plain sailing, Gruppe aus dem Tartarus is a dramatic reaction to the tortured souls of the text.

It was, of course, too much to ask Berlioz to be self-effacing in his single essay. Appropriately, it is the semi-drama Erlkönig that comes in for ‘the treatment’. With its plaintive woodwind comments (escapees from the Symphonie fantastique?) and characteristically inflated aura it is guaranteed to raise knowing smiles from the informed listener. Otter’s declamation of the three voices (father, son and narrator) is expertly done without over-exaggeration. A pity that the final two chords come across as softened. In the piano original they can (and often do) emerge as bleak terminators. Otter rounds off her group with the only Liszt orchestration, that of Die junge Nonne. Ironically, this is the weakest performance of her set. It is simply too smooth (and this sounds more like Abbado’s doing than Liszt’s) and the final ‘Alleluia’s need a rapt presentation that is outside of the scope of the present performance.

Quasthoff’s selection is if anything even more interesting. He includes a clutch of items from the song-cycles (including Schwanengesang), an area left untouched by Otter. Webern’s arrangements are elegant and professional, tender curios of a composer not known for his sentimentality. Tränenregen and Der Wegweiser (from Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, respectively) are delicacy in sound; Ihr Bild (Schwanengesang) is remarkably lush. Only Du bist die Ruh’ begs a question as to whether the layers of orchestration spread on a veneer of sophistication unknown to Schubert’s original.

The two Brahms arrangements are excellently done, particularly Memnon (perhaps Am Schwager Kronos could have a more dramatic accompaniment). More reverence to the Schubert/Reger An die Musik would not have gone amiss either (it emerges as too perfunctory here). Good to have an ‘alternative’ Erlkönig, though - here it is Reger doing the honours. Quasthoff differentiates the various characters’ voices better than von Otter, it has to be said (he is very wheedling as the tempter at ‘Du liebes Kind, komm geh mit mir!’, for example). The only fault comes at the words ‘so brauch ich Gewalt’ (‘or I will need force’, 3’08) which is not really menacing, despite the successful projection of intent at the preceding, pederast-infused ‘Ich liebe dich, mich reizt deine schöne Gestalt’ (‘I love you, your beauty allures me’).

Two encores from Paris concerts conclude the disc, one for each singer. Otter is characterful in Schubert/Brahms’ Geheimes, but it is fitting that the enterprise closes, courtesy of Quasthoff, with a curio. Offenbach’s realisation of Ständchen from Schwanengesang is suffused with woodwind touches (over-highlighted by the recording, however). And wait until the secret weapon arrives: the (uncredited) Grimethorpe Colliery Band enters at 3’11(well, that’s what it sounds like, anyway).

Fascinating stuff, and a disc to return to many, many times.

Colin Clarke



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