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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Life and Works

Written and narrated by Jeremy Siepmann
with Tom George as Schubert
Die Schöne Mullerin [61.47]
Peter Schreier, tenor; Walter Olbertz, piano
Rec: 2004.
NAXOS 8.558135-38 [approx. 271:00]

Classical music purchasers, and certainly readers of this site, are well familiar with the vast selection of discs available from Naxos; what you might be less familiar with, however, is the company's expertise in audiobooks. Naxos has extended their low price philosophy to audiobooks. ‘The Life and Works’ series, with more than a dozen titles, examines the biography and works of major composers.

This 4-CD set about Franz Schubert gives an extensive biography and 31 excerpts from his works, beginning with his earliest compositions (his first string quartet and symphony) and ending with his last.

The series features an excellent presentation: first, the 150-page booklet gives an overview of the historical context of the 19th century, a brief essay on "Schubert in His Time", then a list of his major works. A "Graded Listening Plan" presents a suggested approach to Schubert (through Naxos recordings, of course), then a reading list helps those who want to go further in understanding this composer. Finally, there is a list of "Personalities", or names that figure in Schubert's life, a timeline of Schubert's life, and a glossary.

Then we get to the discs themselves. Each CD contains more than an hour's listening, alternating between a biography and examples of the works. The narrative is well-written, excellently narrated and brilliantly produced - it has the quality of a fine radio show, with a variety of voices used for the different characters. The pacing, especially the length of narrative compared to the excerpts, is ideal.

The set is filled out with an interactive approach: each CD contains all the text that is in the booklet, as well as the spoken text of the entire set. With simple HTML (web) pages that can be viewed with a web browser on any platform, this is a fine example of how interactivity can be made useful, useable and simple. You can follow the spoken text as you listen - or read it on-screen if you prefer - and links for each excerpt take you to the Naxos pages for specific recordings.

Naturally, Naxos sees this as more than just an audiobook about Schubert's life, but also as a way to get listeners to buy more of their discs, but I see nothing wrong with this. After all, Naxos's Schubert recordings are generally good to excellent, and you couldn't go wrong with a selection of, say, their complete recordings of Schubert's lieder.

The question remains as to the intended listener of this audiobook. While I have long been a fan of Schubert's music, I found the text interesting and informative, and certainly learned a great deal about his life, as well as the context in which he wrote his music. Naxos may have created these sets more for the school or library, but individuals will find them interesting as well. Given the low price of this set, anyone who wants to learn more about their favorite composers would benefit from listening to it.

For now, Naxos has only released a dozen or so of these Life and Works sets, focusing on the A-level composers: in addition to Schubert, there is Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Brahms, etc. Hopefully, in the future, they will approach lesser-known composers; I'd heartily suggest one on Charles Ives, for which Naxos has begun an excellent series of recordings, or a title on American composers in general, to go along with their American Classics series.

Kirk McElhearn

see also review by Anne Ozorio

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