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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

Ralph Kohn (baritone), Graham Johnson (piano)
Recorded in London, June 2003
OPERA OMNIA OP3869 [68:43]

Schubert’s song-cycle Winterreise, to poems by Wilhelm Müller, tells the story of a man’s rejection, disintegration and ultimate alienation. A tradition, or at least an assumption has grown up that this is, shall we say, an older singer’s cycle. There was, for example, a great kerfuffle years ago when an ageing Hans Hotter produced his recording – rightly so because it was superb. Yet Schubert was a mere thirty-two years old when he composed these incomparably great songs, and Müller was just twenty-seven when he published the poems.

What then of this recording by the distinguished German baritone Ralph Kohn? It has proved remarkably difficult to establish exactly how old Dr. Kohn is! He is undoubtedly a remarkable individual, having made his career in business in the UK, being the first recipient of the Queen’s Award for Export Achievement. But it would be wrong to suggest that music has been a ‘hobby’; he has studied widely, given recitals in many of the world’s most important venues, and has recorded quite extensively. He is accompanied here by that fine musician Graham Johnson, who brings his customary elegance and poetry to the piano parts of the songs.

I confess that this is easily the ‘straightest’ interpretation of Schubert that I have ever encountered – it’s the performance equivalent of an Urtext, if such a thing is conceivable. Kohn is scrupulously accurate with all the rhythmic patterns, and eschews any but the very slightest rubato. This is a very ‘Classical’ reading of what is a quintessentially Romantic piece. I applaud the desire to give us the music ‘as the composer wrote it’; but the paradox is that one knows that Schubert would have expected freedom and flexibility from his performers, so that an ‘accurate’ performance is inevitably an unstylish one. Despite the honesty and sincerity of Kohn’s singing, there is a whole dimension of experience entirely missing. To take one example; I cannot understand how a singer can fail to react (audibly) to the change to the major key for the last verse of ‘Gute nacht’ (‘Good Night'). Kohn sings on, but nothing happens. Later, a pathetic final act of defiance rings out in the twenty-second song, ‘Mut’ (‘Courage’), yet Kohn is stolid, mildly combative. This absence of any kind of imaginative response in places like this (and there are many of them) is ultimately deeply frustrating, and makes you ask yourself what Kohn’s motivation is for singing the songs at all.

He has clearly had a respectable voice, if not a special one. His intonation is usually clean and accurate but it is now well past its best, and many of the songs find him cruelly exposed. The only way to really enjoy this CD is to listen closely to Johnson’s wonderful playing – the rest is silence, or perhaps should have been.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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