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An Appreciation of the Hyperion Complete Schubert Song Edition

By John Quinn and Patrick Waller

In the autumn of 2005 Hyperion released their complete Schubert song edition, some 18 years after they started recording. The composition of these songs spanned the same number of years. Between Lebenstraum … gesang in c", a fragment dating from 1810 when he was thirteen and Der Taubenpost written a few weeks before his death late in 1828, Schubert set over 700 texts, mostly solo songs but also part songs and for ensemble. Almost all were with piano accompaniment. Everything that has survived is included. The edition is more than complete since it also includes a three-disc anthology of songs by Schubert’s friends and contemporaries, many of which are settings of the same texts Schubert used. In all there are forty discs and more than sixty solo singers participated but only one pianist – the indefatigable Graham Johnson. This project is his brainchild and he is the artistic mastermind.

In 1985, over dinner, Johnson was asked by Ted Perry, founder of Hyperion records what he most wanted to record. "All Schubert songs" was the answer and apparently Perry agreed immediately. He was a visionary man for whom making worthwhile records was more important than money. Johnson devised the programmes and started auspiciously with a disc sung by Janet Baker. Apparently contractual difficulties had prevented her from joining Fischer-Dieskau in making a complete Schubert song edition for another label some years earlier. Although it was late in her career, she was still in fine voice. It was, however, too late for Fischer-Dieskau to sing although in 1995 he narrated the songs from Die Schöne Müllerin that Schubert didn’t set. This was for Ian Bostridge’s recording of that work.

Many a Schubert lover will have collected these discs individually as they have been released over the last twenty years. One of us (JQ) did so and the other (PW) acquired the complete set shortly after it was released. Although we both have exactly the same recorded material, there are important differences in presentation, which will be discussed in the reflections given below. It is still possible to acquire the original discs individually, and therefore to pick and choose. Some guidance on the most desirable of them is included. But anyone who has few or none of these discs and wants to discover the whole oeuvre will surely be driven to acquire the box, the cost of which is about a third as much as buying the discs separately. This will not represent unwarranted completism. Schubert was surely the greatest songwriter of them all and the singers, Johnson and Hyperion here combined to do full justice to his work.

Reflections of a collector who acquired the individual discs (John Quinn)

It all started so innocently! One Saturday morning I spotted a new CD from Hyperion on which Dame Janet Baker was performing a recital of Schubert lieder accompanied by Graham Johnson. I’d read about Hyperion’s project to record all Schubert’s lieder by 1997, the bicentennial of his birth but, I freely confess I’d not taken a great deal of notice. However, I was - and remain – a great admirer of Dame Janet so I bought the disc, curious in part to hear her in a number of less well-known Schubert lieder. Little did I know what I was letting myself - or my wallet – in for!

I didn’t immediately buy the succeeding volume, which featured Stephen Varcoe. Indeed, I recall being put off a little by the prospect of one very long ballad, Der Taucher, D111 [27:50] in the recital. A few weeks after it appeared in the shops, however, I succumbed, again attracted, largely, by the singer. Three or four more discs later and I was hooked! Thereafter, each volume was snapped up eagerly when it appeared. Eventually I was the proud possessor of thirty-seven separate CDs – about £500 worse off, but immeasurably richer in musical terms!

It’s well nigh impossible to reappraise such a huge undertaking in the scope of a brief notice so all I can do is mention some highlights. Dame Janet launched the enterprise most propitiously. A beautifully poised account of Thelka, D73 awaited us as just the second track. Later on in the recital came a wonderfully inward reading of Meeres Stille, D216 and a typically sensitive traversal of An den Mond, D296.

If, in the course of this notice, I don’t make specific mention of a particular CD that should not be construed in any way as implying that the disc in question was of poor quality. It’s simply a question of the constraints of time. So I pass by the recital of Stephen Varcoe (Vol. 2) but I must single out the rapt reading of Nacht und Träume, D827 that is a pinnacle in Ann Murray’s accomplished recital (Vol. 3).

Graham Johnson displayed a wonderful knack of matching his chosen singers not just to songs but also to themes and most, if not all the recitals had a theme. Thus Anthony Rolfe Johnson was perfectly suited to "Schubert and the Nocturne" (Vol. 6). This CD was recorded in 1989. Rolfe Johnson would make a further appearance in the series to sing part of Schwanengesang but that recording was made some ten years later and by then the singer’s voice was perhaps not quite so fresh and honeyed. Rolfe Johnson is in lovely, easy voice, for example, in Die Stern, D939. This recital also gave us the chance to hear side-by-side two settings of the same poem, Abends unter der Linde. The first setting, catalogued as D235, was followed the very next day, 25 July 1815, by a further attempt on the same text, D237. Rolfe Johnson is a lovely advocate of both.

The next three volumes brought us offerings from three distinguished female singers. The Schubertian credentials of Elly Ameling (Vol. 7) are too well known to need restatement here. Suffice to say her recital is all one could wish: a gorgeously inflected reading of An den Mond, D193 shows her skills at their finest. Sarah Walker’s excellent recital (Vol. 8) ended with an utterly electrifying account of Erlkönig, D328, her searingly dramatic singing driven on by Johnson’s urgent, dynamic piano playing. Much later in the series (Vol. 24) Christine Schäfer (soprano), John Mark Ainsley (tenor) and Michael George (bass) sang the song as a mini-drama with Ainsley as the narrator. That’s interesting to hear but it doesn’t begin to approach the hair-raising involvement of Miss Walker.

Volume 9 brought us Arleen Augér in a recital entitled "Schubert and the Theatre". Listening to it now reminds me what a grievous loss was the early death of this lovely singer. She was in particularly glorious voice for Der Hirt auf dem Felsen, D965, in which the playing, by turns mellifluous and agile, of clarinettist Thea King greatly enhanced the performance. Another much-missed singer, Lucia Popp, contributed Volume 17, devoted to songs from 1816. I love her touching rendition of Am Grabe Anselmos, D504, while An den Mond, D468, An die Nachtigall, D497 and, above all, her deceptively simple reading of Am Tage aller Seelen (Litanei), D343 are all pure delight.

In Volume 11 Brigitte Fassbaender gave us a typically characterful recital, investing Auf dem Wasser zu singen, D774 with more intensity than is often heard. The dramatic account of Der Tod und das Mädchen, D631 is just what one would expect from this committed singer: it’s compelling. Thomas Hampson (Vol. 14) is superb in a programme entitled "Schubert and the Classics." He sets the tone right at the start in an elevated performance of Die Götter Griechenlands, D677 and both he and Johnson are absolutely commanding in Gruppe aus dem Tartarus, D583. This is one of the must-have issues in the series.

There was much to enjoy in Dame Margaret Price’s recital (Vol. 15) and also in Thomas Allen’s offering (Vol. 16) and in Vol. 17 Dame Felicity Lott’s much lighter-voiced version of Auf dem Wasser zu singen, D774 offers a pleasing contrast with the above-mentioned performance by Fassbaender - this is but one of several occasions on which two singers essay the same song. Among other lovely things on that disc is a charming Nachtviolen, D752.

Volume 18 brought us a master of lieder, Peter Schreier, He gave us a recital of strophic lieder, many of them relatively unfamiliar. Not for the first time in this series I wondered how many of the songs in question were well known to the singer concerned before receiving their assignments from Graham Johnson. Schreier’s artistry is everywhere evident. Sample, for instance, what I’d term the restrained intensity that he brings to Auf den Tod einer Nachtigall, D399, a song from 1816. Or hear the expressiveness, never overdone, that he brings to Um Mitternacht, D862, where, as so often in this series, Johnson matches his singer note for note in terms of expression and insight. Schreier is in sovereign voice throughout and this unmissable disc is a 76-minute long masterclass.

Other notable recitals included those by Edith Mathis (Vol. 21), Christoph Prégardien (Vol. 23), and Marjana Lipovšek (Vol. 29). Time does not permit consideration of the ten discs which contained a variety of songs by a variety of singers and which were, either explicitly or implicitly, Schubertiads. However, all were highly enjoyable and one of the welcome features of the series was the opportunity that these mixed recitals offered Johnson to include contributions from some younger singers, several of whom probably hadn’t begun their careers when the whole enterprise began. Thus singers such as Gerald Finley, Simon Keenlyside, Christopher Maltman and Catherine Wyn-Rogers became involved in this great project.

There was really only one relative disappointment, which was Volume 12. I’m afraid I’ve never taken greatly to Adrian Thompson’s voice – that’s a matter of purely personal taste. Matters aren’t helped by the fact that he’s allotted songs by "The Young Schubert", some of which, frankly, are somewhat limited and naïve. It’s interesting to hear Schubert’s setting of Adelaide, D95, which dates from 1814. Though Beethoven’s setting of the same text is indisputably greater, Schubert’s effort should by no means be eclipsed and Thompson does it well but elsewhere I find his voice somewhat strident under pressure and that diminishes one’s pleasure.

And so, finally, to the three great cycles. I have read suggestions that the singers who eventually recorded these cycles may not all have been Johnson’s original choices and that circumstances intervened to necessitate changes to his plans. Be that as it may, the end result was that in two cases we have the fascination of hearing readings by singers at relatively early stages in their careers. Ian Bostridge was entrusted with Die Schöne Müllerin (Volume 25). Since making this recording in 1995 he has gone on to record the work again – a version I haven’t heard. This CD was also noteworthy for a non-musical reason. It had been hoped originally that the doyen of post-war lieder singers, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, would contribute a recital to the series but the planned recording had to be postponed and before it could be re-scheduled the great singer had retired. Nothing daunted, Johnson and Hyperion, determined that he should be involved in the project, invited him to read the five poems in the collection by Müller that Schubert did not set, plus one other. These spoken interpolations can be a distraction, there is no doubt, but they make for an interesting occasional addition and, of course, it’s easy to omit them when playing the disc. Emotionally, it’s right and proper that the man who did so much to popularise Schubert’s lieder and, indeed, lieder in general, should have a place in this project.

Bostridge gives us a very fine reading indeed. His timbre seems to me to suit the songs very well – I much prefer to hear them in Schubert’s original high keys – and he uses his vocal resources intelligently. I admire the ardour that he brings to ‘Am Feierabend’ and to ‘Mein!’; this is definitely the eager young suitor. But as the mood of the cycle changes and deepens, so does Bostridge respond with even finer, more expressive singing. He spins a wonderful, wistful line in ‘Trockne Blumen’ and the final two songs, ‘Der Müller und der Bach’ and, even more so, ‘Des Baches Wiegenlied’ are deeply affecting. This is a most distinguished account of the cycle, made all the more satisfying an experience by hearing it sung by an appropriately youthful and very gifted singer.

Winterreise (Vol. 30) was allotted to a baritone, Matthias Goerne, and this is another very successful performance. Goerne and Johnson take the listener on a real musical journey, and a very stimulating and satisfying one at that. Right from the start, in ‘Gute Nacht’, Goerne lays out his impressive credentials as a lieder singer: attentiveness to the words, warm tone, long lines and sensitive shading of both dynamics and vocal colour are all much in evidence. Equally typical in these respects is ‘Der Lindenbaum’. But, as with Bostridge in Die Schöne Müllerin, it’s as the cycle progresses and matters become more and more serious, that Goerne is at his very best. ‘Das Wirthaus’, which is taken very slowly, is sung with impressive inwardness; one can sense the traveller’s spirit and resolve ebbing away. I’ll comment on the documentation in a moment but it’s worth noting at this point that Johnson covers over four full pages with his note on this one song – and not a word is superfluous! After this you might not believe that Goerne and Johnson can get better. But then the profound gravity of ‘Die Nebensonnen’ proves that they can and the withdrawn, otherworldly way in which they perform ‘Der Leiermann’ proves that even more. This astonishing, harrowing song, years before its time, concludes a very fine, deeply probing Winterreise.

The thirty-seventh and final volume in the series, "Schubert – the Final Year" brought us, appropriately enough, Schwanengesang. The disc also included six other songs from 1828, most of which were sung by tenor Michael Schade, including the wonderful, imposing Auf der Strom, D943, in which the glorious horn obbligato is played – superbly – by David Pyatt. Schwanengesang itself is divided, most unusually, between two singers. John Mark Ainsley performed the Rellstab settings while Anthony Rolfe Johnson sang the Heine songs and ‘Der Taubenpost.’ Each of these singers sang their allotted songs as a consecutive group. In principle I’ve no objection to this idea – though I don’t recall it being done this way before – since the songs are not a cycle, but simply a posthumous collection, gathered together and given an unauthorised title by the publisher. And once one has recalled that fact I think the idea works in practice too. Mind you, it helps that the songs are divided between two such fine singers. Ainsley sings beautifully, his light, easy delivery being particularly well suited to, say, ‘Ständchen.’ But he’s just as successful with the deeper sentiments of ‘In der Ferne’.

The Heine songs benefit from a somewhat heavier voice and, at this stage in his career, Ainsley’s erstwhile teacher, Rolfe Johnson, was better suited to these songs than Ainsley would have been. That said, he sounds to be under quite some strain during ‘Der Atlas.’ Matters improve significantly with ‘Ihr Bild’, which is much better suited to Rolfe Johnson’s style of singing. And the lilting ‘Das Fischermädchen’ is also right up his street. ‘Am Meer’ is splendid and the remarkable ‘Der Doppelgänger’ is pregnant with atmosphere, as it should be. Rolfe Johnson can’t approach the vocal and emotional intensity that Peter Schreier offers in this song - and others - in his searing live account, recently issued on the Wigmore Hall Live label – and he’s wise not to try – but Rolfe Johnson’s is still a very fine and searching account. After the intensity of ‘Der Doppelgänger’ the grace and charm of ‘Die Taubenpost’, beautifully delivered here, rings down the curtain on the whole series, reminding us pertinently, that Schubert was, first and foremost, one of the greatest melodists ever to grace this world of ours.

Finally, mention must be made of the documentation that accompanied the individual discs. The German text of each song is supplied, accompanied by excellent English translations, all taken from Richard Wigmore’s Schubert: The Complete Song Texts (1988). But it’s the notes by Graham Johnson that have acquired already an almost legendary status. He started modestly enough: the booklet for Volume 1 ran to a mere 24 pages. By the time that he’d reached the 37th and final disc, however, the booklet extended to 111 pages! Long before this the size of the booklets had become an issue and from volume 25 onwards Hyperion had re-packaged the discs in fatter cases. It’s just a pity they didn’t take this step earlier. The notes, including commentaries on all the poets, are an absolute mine of information and insight and throughout Johnson’s enthusiasm for his subject shines out like a beacon. It’s said that in due course the notes will be published separately in book form. Such a book, I predict, will become a classic of Schubert commentary but there’s much to be said for the convenience of having both the texts and translations as well as the commentaries for each song readily accessible and gathered together as one listens to the discs.

As it unfolded this series of discs offered riches beyond measure. Just occasionally aspects of the performances disappointed but these were infrequent occasions and the scale of the disappointment was only relative. Of course there were times when one realised that Schubert wasn’t equally inspired every single day – and that wasn’t just the case with his juvenilia! However, as well as the established and well-loved masterpieces, this series brought us face to face with a wealth of songs that, although less familiar to many listeners, are still splendid inspirations and worthy of a regular place in the recital hall. Above all, the series demonstrated vividly the sheer scale of Schubert’s achievement. And how humbling that it should all have been achieved in such a short span of years and at a time when such things as electric light and computers, which make the drudge of actually writing down the music so much easier nowadays, were not available.

For me, this set of thirty-seven discs represents what would have been called not so long ago one of the supreme achievements of the gramophone. And it’s an achievement that’s unlikely to be surpassed in the foreseeable future – certainly not in my lifetime. Over some forty hours of music-making Graham Johnson and his gifted, dedicated singers made us aware, perhaps as never before, of the genius of Franz Schubert. We owe a great debt of gratitude to all the singers. But even more so we should be grateful to Graham Johnson, whose consistently superb pianism is a constant thread and a constant delight throughout. His contribution as pianist, planner and guiding spirit would be great enough but on top of all that he has given us, in his liner notes, what I suspect will eventually come to be regarded as one of the great works of scholarship in the realm of writings about music.

But though Johnson was the moving spirit behind this hugely ambitious project he was not its onlie begetter. One should pay tribute also to the late Ted Perry, founder of Hyperion Records, who had the vision to back the venture. This series may well turn out to be his most enduring and fitting memorial.

Reflections of a collector who acquired the complete set (Patrick Waller)

Nuts and bolts first. If you are considering purchasing this set I expect you will want to know exactly what you are getting and you are unlikely to be able to browse inside the box in a record shop. The forty discs come in an attractive box and are housed in slimline jewel cases. Within each case there is a card with track listing. Documentation is in the form of a book, which fits inside the box although, for ready access, mine has lived on top of it for the past six months. The book contains all the texts in German and English (translated by Richard Wigmore), some reflections by Graham Johnson and a Schubert calendar, which places the songs in the context of Schubert’s life and other works. There are also good indexes. Size constraints mean that the typeface is on the small side and there isn’t room for the extensive notes by Johnson, which come with the individual discs. Apparently there are plans for these to be published separately in a two-volume book.

Apart from the lack of detailed notes, the other major difference from the individual discs is that the songs are given in chronological order. In the individual discs songs had been grouped around themes and particular artists. Here, most discs have several singers and the voice changes after almost every song. This is a little disconcerting initially but, once used to it, I did not feel that it was a problem since the sound quality is remarkably consistent … and excellent. Although some guesswork is involved in matters of chronology - they are not given precisely in Deutsch order since life has moved on - no concessions are made. For example, this means that Winterreise is split over two discs, Schubert having composed it in two parts some months apart.

Whilst on the subject of Winterreise, the cycles would seem a good place to start considering the artistic merits of the edition. For Die Schöne Müllerin Johnson chose a youthful Ian Bostridge and this disc, issued in 1995, has received considerable critical acclaim. It was the only one of the series that I bought although I borrowed several others from a library. If I now prefer Bostridge’s more recent version with Mitsuko Uchida, this Hyperion recording remains as fresh as the day it was recorded. This is not a criticism of Fischer-Dieskau but the interspersed narrations are rather distracting and I usually programme them out. Winterreise is sung by the baritone Matthias Goerne, again a case of Johnson going for youth in one of the peaks - actually, the Everest. This is a beautifully sung reading but not one that for me supersedes Fischer-Dieskau. Goerne too has since re-recorded the work - with Brendel - but I haven’t yet heard that. The two parts of Schwanengesang – not a true cycle but a posthumously published collection – are sung by John Mark Ainsley and Antony Rolfe-Johnson. This is a superb disc, which, incidentally, also contains Der Hirt auf dem Felsen – an extended song which also includes a part for clarinet. Arleen Augér sings radiantly and Thea King’s clarinet is mellifluous in one of the most memorable songs of the whole series. These versions of the cycles might not be absolutely top choices in quite a competitive market but they would all be well worthy of a place in anyone’s Schubert collection.

When planning this article, I intended to mention some specific songs as highlights at this point but, coming to the crunch, I find this almost impossibly difficult - how can one alight on something lasting 3 or 4 minutes out of more than 40 hours? It seems more practical to consider highlights via the singers. The overall standard of singing is very high and amazingly consistent so even this is rather unfair. But there are some voices that, when you come to them, are like a shot of adrenaline – Janet Baker is one, Margaret Price, and Arleen Augér other females who particularly excel. Of the men, Thomas Hampson, Christoph Prégardien and John Mark Ainsley catch the ear every time. It was also delightful to hear Lucia Popp and Elly Ameling in this repertoire. I could go on naming highly regarded singers who made important contributions to the edition – the variety they bring is surely one of the strengths of the Hyperion edition.

The final three discs include eighty-one songs by forty other composers, all of whom lived during some part of Schubert’s thirty-one years. Starting with Haydn’s Der Gries for a quartet of singers, the first of these also contains a splendid version of Beethoven’s cycle An die ferne Geliebte sung by Mark Padmore. Other well-known composers represented include Mendelssohn, Schumann and Liszt each of whom get only a single item because the main focus seems to be on much more obscure composers. Certainly I had never come across Reichardt and Zelter before, both of whom have several offerings, including their settings of one of Schubert’s most famous songs – Erlkönig. All three versions use the same words by Goethe and it is notable how much broader Schubert’s view is – about four minutes is normal – Reichardt here lasts 1’31" and Zelter 2’20". Back in the Schubert part of the set, there are two versions of this song, one of which is unusual in utilizing three singers – one for each part.

Aside from Erlkönig, these three discs make one realize that many song texts were set by multiple composers although often only one version remains well known. About fifty of the songs presented here were also set by Schubert and are cross-referenced. Another of Zelter’s songs has a very familiar title – Um Mitternacht is one of Mahler’s Rückert settings. But this version is by Goethe and its impact could hardly be more different – this is midnight on a balmy summer evening with none of Mahler’s dark undertones. Some other composers well-represented here who I had not heard of before are Zumsteeg, Hüttenbrenner and Lachner. The songs which are not by Schubert have been superbly realized with Susan Gritton, Ann Murray, Mark Padmore and Gerald Finley bearing the brunt of the work.

I have so far listened to this set once, chronologically, breaking off for the non-Schubert discs about a quarter of the way through. This took me six months. It has been an immensely enriching experience and I intend to do it again that way in the not too distant future whilst dipping in often for specific songs and artists. This box won’t fit on ordinary CD shelves – it needs somewhere special. It has had pride of place in my lounge and it will be staying right there.


Our mutual enthusiasm for this marvellous project should be obvious enough from the above. Getting to know these songs gradually over about twenty years is probably the ideal and the thematic groupings of the individual discs make for satisfying, self-contained recitals, which are perfect for domestic listening. They provide the opportunity to hear works from different periods of Schubert’s life side-by-side, generally presented by a single artist. The chronological approach of the complete set is a rather different but very rewarding experience. In either case it is possible to listen to the songs in whatever order one wishes but, in practice, the need for multiple changes of disc is a disadvantage for a "make-up-your-own" recital.

We both agree that the ideal would be to buy the complete series, whether as individual discs or in the single-box format. However, some collectors might wish just to acquire a few volumes. Though it’s rather invidious to single out "best buys", in that event our recommendations of Key Recordings from the series would be - in order of Volume number, not preference:

Dame Janet Baker CDJ33001

Elly Ameling CDJ 33007

Sarah Walker CDJ33008

Arleen Augér CDJ33009

Brigitte Fassbaender CDJ33011

Thomas Hampson CDJ 33014

Dame Margaret Price CDJ 33015

Lucia Popp CDJ 33017

Peter Schreier CDJ 33018

Edith Mathis CDJ33021

Christoph Prégardien CDJ33023

Ian Bostridge Die Schöne Müllerin CDJ33025

Matthias Goerne Winterreise CDJ33030

We hope that Hyperion will keep both the complete set and individual discs available indefinitely. In time, perhaps they might also consider packaging up some of the individual discs more economically. Despite the many merits of this project, the Schubert song lover will still wish to hear others in this repertoire – notably Fischer-Dieskau. Equally well, those who haven’t yet heard much of this yet will surely be drawn to explore these discs – one way or another. Be warned, you’ll probably end up with them all sooner or later! A big Bravo to Hyperion!

John Quinn

Patrick Waller


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Review of Vol. 9:

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Review of Friends and Contemporaries discs:

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