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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
North German Poets

Auf der Bruck D.853, An mein Herz D.860, Tiefes Leid D.876, Im Walde D.834, Der liebliche Stern D.861, Um Mitternacht D.862, Lebensmut D.883, Im Frühling D.882, Über Wildemann D.884, Klaglied D.23, An die Laute D.905, Alinde D.904, An die Sonne D.272, Lied aus dem Märchen "Undine" D.373, Der Schäfer und dem Reiter D.517, Don Gayseros D.93, Der Einsame D.800, Im Abendrot D.799, Der Wanderer D.493
Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass-baritone), Ulrich Eisenlohr (piano)
Recorded 13th-16th August 2001 at Sender Freies, Berlin, Germany
NAXOS 8.555780 [74:52]


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I have recently spoken enthusiastically about the 12th volume in this Naxos series – Mayrhofer-Lieder sung by Christiane Iven – and here is another outstanding bargain. This time the pianist is Ulrich Eisenlohr, who is masterminding the whole series, and he proves to be a marvellous player – Schubert’s range of colours is always precisely observed – and above all a marvellous accompanist. His breathing is always at one with the singer and he knows just when to fall into the background and when to bring forward a phrase or a figure which is an essential part of the argument.

The principal offering here is the set of nine songs (the first nine listed above) to poems by the tragically short-lived Ernst Schulze (1789-1817). They are all late works (1825-6) and were published in drips and drabs from 1827-1838. They were not, so far as we know, intended as a cycle, yet when assembled as such they amount to a substantial 36-minute sequence and appear as a forerunner of the two great cycles that came soon afterwards. Although the songs are all basically strophic, with only a few variations, they find Schubert in his most impassioned romantic vein, offering the singer scope for a wide range of expression and providing the pianist with plenty of rewarding writing. One song, "Im Frühling", is universally known, and yet it gains from being heard in context. The "cycle" as such appeared on CD in Vol. 18 of the Hyperion Schubert edition, sung by the tenor Peter Schreier. That disc is, incredibly, ten years old now, so it was time for an alternative, and Naxos have seen that it is a genuine alternative by giving us a baritone version.

And sung by a very good baritone, I should add. Müller-Brachmann has an attractively warm and even voice, and he really makes a lot out of the words. This is a slightly different approach to lieder singing than that of Christiane Iven in Vol. 12 of this series. I remarked that Iven harked back to the pre-Fischer-Dieskau approach in that she gives us a bel canto delivery of the music, in which the words, clear though they are, are not allowed to disturb the melodic line. Müller-Brachmann is closer to Fischer-Dieskau in his stressing and underlining of single words, often stretching the rhythm in order to do so. Since he is a highly musical artist he manages to stay the right side of the dividing-line between stretching and distortion and I do not wish to suggest that one approach is better than the other. How splendid that this series should encompass such different styles of presentation.

And yet, when I took out the Fischer-Dieskau versions of the two songs with texts by Karl Lappe (1773-1843) – "Der Einsame" and "Im Abendrot" – there were important differences too. Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore (DG) give the first of these with an almost Stravinskian drollness. The great baritone husbands and cossets his words but the tempo stays pretty strict. Müller-Brachmann and Eisenlohr are slightly swifter, but also allow themselves more elbow-room for little slowings down. Schubert’s cheeky humour is not lost sight of, but it is made to alternate with more affectionate moments in which the words are taken at face value. Fascinating to have these alternatives.

In "Im Abendrot" Fischer-Dieskau shows a dynamic range and shading which are quite extraordinary – in these moments we have to admit the difference between greatness and mere excellence – but Müller-Brachmann (not so different in basic concept) is rewarding on his own terms. An interesting alternative in this song comes from Vesselina Kasarova, who invests the second stanza with a tone of angry protest not to be heard in the other two performances.

The disc closes with one of Schubert’s most famous songs, "Der Wanderer", in a version that loses little in comparison with Fischer-Dieskau. As with any complete cycle, you have to take your rough with your smooth, and the 10-minute ballad "Don Gayseros" is an early and unconvincing piece, but everything else, well-known or not, testifies to the composer’s inexhaustible inspiration.

In conclusion I compared several versions of "Im Frühling" and I have to say that, though a good many fine pianists have recorded it, Edwin Fischer, the greatest of all Schubert pianists, is surely unsurpassable in his recording with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. There is such translucence to his tone, and such variety of expression without the need to storm and shout. And Schwarzkopf, in other contexts inclined towards mannerism, simply comments as if spellbound. When she sings "See how the colours of spring/Look out from bud and blossom" she need hardly do more than sing the words simply, for Fischer has already painted spring in all its range of colours. And how magically he rings the changes at the fifth stanza where others go on the rampage!

At the other extreme is Kasarova, all youthful passion and pain, impulsive and probably wrong-headed, but convincing in her way. Müller-Brachmann is somewhere in the middle, and seems ideal in context.

The recording is excellent though I found it sounded best if played at a rather high level; Eisenlohr provides useful notes and we get the texts with English translation, so here is another splendid achievement in an important Naxos cycle.

Christopher Howell


For reviews of other releases in this series,
see the Naxos Deutsche Schubert-Lied Edition page


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