The Hyperion Schubert edition is not the least of reasons
why true music lovers will bless the memory of Ted Perry for evermore.
And here is Naxos well into its own Schubert edition at a giveaway price!
The aims of the two editions are quite distinct. The
Hyperion edition based each disc on a theme Ė flowers, animals and so
forth, or on a particular year of activity. It was masterminded by the
pianist Graham Johnson, who also provided the incredibly detailed notes,
and his choice of singers gave a certain prevalence to the leading British
artists of the day, documenting the high level of lieder-singing to
be found in the United Kingdom in the late 20th Century. A number of
celebrated German singers were also included.
The Naxos edition is also masterminded by a pianist,
Ulrich Eisenlohr, who however does not play on each disc (as in the
present case). He has chosen to present a team of German singers, and
the German slant of the edition is evident also in the choice to group
the songs according to the poet(s) set. Schubert himself had had some
such idea in 1816 but, as we know, relatively few of his songs were
actually published in his lifetime. It has neatness in its favour and
will appeal to students of German poetry. It also carries the slight
risk of creating an "encyclopaedia in sound" rather than a
series of listener-friendly programmes.
Johann Mayrhofer (1797-1836) was a close friend of
Schubertís for a short period. Schubert set his poetry for the first
time in 1814 and from 1818 to 1820 the two actually lived under the
same roof. Yet Mayrhoferís preoccupation with classical imagery and
mythology which often contained a thinly veiled political analogy with
contemporary Austria is rather far from the sort of subject material
Schubert normally preferred, and in time the composer seemed to come
round to this view, for his relations with Mayrhofer cooled off after
1820 and he set only a very few poems by Mayrhofer after this date.
We see immediately one of the disadvantages of this
system of programme-making when, thanks to an insistence on chronological
order, the disc opens with one of Schubertís less memorable creations,
"Am See"; it also contains "Urianiens Flucht" in
which for 18-and-a-half minutes Schubert tries his hand at a dramatic
cantata for solo voice and piano. Fortunately he keeps breaking into
himself but even so itís a long haul (but, of course, a complete edition
has to include it somewhere).
Fortunately the piano introduction to the fourth song
on the CD, "Abendlied der Fürstin", and the heart-easing
melody with which the following song, "Sehnsucht", opens,
will rapidly convince the listener that plenty of the Schubert we all
know and love is to be found here. Luckily Mayrhoferís particular preoccupations
did not prevent him from also writing the sort of romantic nature poetry
that always drew the best out of Schubert. If none of the songs here
are among the composerís most famous, there are several that ought to
be. As I write, the "Schaflied" is obstinately reverberating
through my head, but "Erlafsee", "Beim Winde", "Die
Sternennächte" and "Abendstern" are all gems, and
the dramatic "Auflösung" makes a terrific ending. At
the Naxos price the disc is worth it for these alone.
Especially when sung (and played) as well as they are
here. Christiane Iven has a rich mezzo timbre, even throughout the range
and with a good feeling for how to transmit the words without breaking
the musical line. I could leave it like that, but a few comparisons
seem called for. When there are notable differences between her competitors
(often there are not), Iven is the more upfront, impulsive interpreter.
In "Iphigenia", Janet Baker and Gerald Moore (EMI) are slower,
tiptoeing around in half-tones. Itís very magical in its hushed way,
but it is possible to feel that Schubert responded to the classical
image with a Cherubini-like operatic scena. This is how Iven interprets
it and I must say it makes more sense.
Other cases are less clear-cut. Dame Janet belonged
to the generation of lieder singers under the thrall of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau,
who established a very detailed approach to the text. Singers of an
earlier generation tried to be clear with the words, but not at the
expense of the melodic line. Baker and Moore are again almost self-consciously
"magical" in their underlining of every dot and dash in "Abendstern".
I suppose they are short of the point where the word "mannered"
has to be uttered. However do Iven and Kehring, in their more straightforward
way, actually miss out on anything? The recent tendency has been to
describe the Fischer-Dieskau approach as "interventionist"
and to rediscover the beauties of the older "bel canto" approach.
We should be glad to have two such convincing, but different,
interpretations of several of these songs.
In "Die Sternennächte" I did feel, even
before I started comparisons, that Iven was a bit too upfront and daylit,
and sure enough, Felicity Lott and Graham Johnson (Hyperion) give a
beautifully hushed picture of the moonlit night. But the poem isnít
only about moonlight, and when the same music in the third stanza
has the somewhat trite conclusion "So I happily conclude/That our
little earth too,/Full of discord and danger,/Shines cheerfully",
Ivenís more lilting tempo sounds absolutely right. So maybe she has
a point after all. Something similar happens in "Beim Winde".
It begins "They dream, clouds,/stars, moon", and Lott and
Johnson certainly sound dreamy. But it goes on "They rock and nestle
down deep", and we get the rocking from Iven and Kehring.
In "Auflösung" it has to be admitted
that Janet Baker lets forth all the glory of her voice and I doubt if
Iven would have the same versatility to move from lieder to the tragic
queens of Donizetti and Berlioz and so much else. But taken on her own
terms she nonetheless manages a fully effective performance of this
song, with a thrilling high G near the end.
It will not have escaped you that Dames Janet and Felicity
are two singers whose names travelled the world. The name of Christiane
Iven has not yet done so, but I certainly felt no embarrassment in comparing
her versions with theirs; indeed, she frequently offers a refreshing
Naxos do not provide the in-depth song-by-song notes
we got from Hyperion, but the essay by Michael Kube is excellent by
any standards and we get full texts and English translations. The recording
is first-class, completing an outstanding contribution to lieder on