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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Life and Works

Written and narrated by Jeremy Siepmann
recorded Oxfordshire, no date DDD
NAXOS 8.558135-38 [63'33" + 67'58" + 73'33" + 65'53" = 270í]

This isnít so much "The Works" as "The Life", illustrated by short music clips. Nonetheless, it is an intriguing concept. The CDs Ė four of them Ė are accompanied by an interactive CD-ROM with plenty of information. In other words, itís a book that talks, sings, plays music and runs like a website. As such itís a good beginnerís guide, compact and easy to use. It will appeal to the generation brought up on information technology, to whom books are a strange, archaic means of communication. A good gift for someone who might feel more comfortable with a CD-ROM and be put off by a book. Not only for teenagers but for adults who might be intimidated by the "highbrow" image of classical music. Naxos do their marketing well and must know that this is a huge, growing audience, perhaps the future of classical music. This set, and its companion volume, on Brahms, will be on many shopping lists this Christmas.

And an entertaining introduction it is, too. Narrated by Jeremy Siepmann, the writer and broadcaster, it comprehensively covers Schubertís life. Quotations from letters and memoirs of his time are read out, like a TV documentary. Quotes in books donít sound quite the same! Schubertís own "voice", which is heard most frequently, is done by the actor Tom George. Amusingly, his voice is a high tenor, much like Schubertís own voice was. George doesnít sing, which is a pity because Schubert did, but that would be stretching the imagination too far. The narrative is smooth and reasonably up to date, with no contentious surprises. A bibliography is given, too, to help the listener who wants to learn more. This is set out in conversational prose, describing the recommended books in a straightforward way. Since the narrative is based on Schubertís life and times, a good timeline of events in his life and the world around him is given. Understanding a composer well does involve understanding what made him, and how he stands in relation to his times.

Even more usefully, there is a glossary of musical terms Ė something which many experienced listeners could use, too. If new audiences are to start out, itís sensible to give them a map for reference. This section could prove to be the one most consulted after the rest of the set is grown out of. Because, pleasant as this set is, it will be outgrown, hopefully, when the listener moves on to the music itself. The CD-ROM format, makes checking references fairly simple. The full spoken text is on the CD-ROM and on As music, however, the set is disappointing. In four and a half hours there are thirty one musical items ranging from 44 seconds of a song to a whole eleven minutes from Symphony No. 8. The writer says "dismemberment" of the music is "almost sacrilegious" but that some might feel they "interrupt" the "story". Thatís a good point. The extracts are enough to give the listener a flavour, which he or she can explore in much greater depth with a good recording or visit to a concert.

This leads to the next stage. How does a listener go on? The musical extracts are unfortunately pretty poor Ė in one case, excruciatingly awful. If a listener uses these as a guide to further listening, they will not get a fair idea of what Schubertís music really can be like. Nonetheless, it would be far too much to ask of the recording company to nominate recordings other than their own. It is to Naxosís credit, therefore, that some of the recordings cited come from their rival, Hyperion, from Naïve and from Claves. An alert listener will thus have a hint that it might be a good idea to look beyond the Naxos counter. There are plenty of good Schubert recordings around. No mention here, of course, of Brendel, Pollini, or Uchida, and thatís just the piano work.

The Naxos and Hyperion Schubert series are quite different. The Hyperion song series pioneered the concept, and some early recordings feature less than stellar performers. Some, however, are among the best around and very well regarded. Nonetheless, everything is covered, even snatches of incomplete works. The booklets alone are treasures revered by people who know their Schubert well. However, not everyone wants that much depth, and the whole Hyperion series of 45 full price CDs would be too expensive for non-specialists. That is where the Naxos series gets ahead. Itís much cheaper, for one thing. Hyperion produces no equivalent set like this Naxos set, but they are appealing to very different audiences. This set is as good a beginning as any, especially if the gift package contains a few other goodies like key recordings. .

Anne Ozorio

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