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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Der Hirt auf dem Felsen D.965 (1828) [11:03]
Franz LACHNER (1803-1890)

Seit ich ihn Gesehen op.82 (1847) [04:46]
Auf Flügeln des Gesanges (1847) [05:48]
Johann Wenzeslaus KALLIWODA (1801-1866)

Heimatlied op.117 (1831) [03:41]
Louis SPOHR (1784-1866)

6 Deutsche Lieder op.103 (1837) [24:35]
Helen Donath (soprano), Dieter Klöcker (clarinet), Klaus Donath (piano)
rec. 1981, Berlin
ARTS ARCHIVES 43054-2 [51:14]

The first note played by the clarinet in Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (The Shepherd on the Rock) is marked "long pause", but I’ve never heard anything like this. Dieter Klöcker enters so softly he is barely perceptible, then little by little he swells out to the maximum a clarinet can achieve, which is quite a lot when he is playing it. Then he fades equally gradually, then starts to swell again until finally he’s off into the famous melody. Timed by the clock, the performance lasted 13 seconds but it seemed more. Clarinettists will want to hear and admire such control. On a second hearing, though, they may join the rest of us in wishing he’d just get on with it.

All through the long introduction Klöcker is ready to survey the scene with melancholy retrospection, drawing to a near halt when anything like a cadence or a change of key comes up. It’s one way to play late Schubert.

Another way is Helen Donath’s. Her bright, creamy tone suggests a sort of girlish eagerness, though her timbre is sufficiently sumptuous to avoid any of the mawkishness this might imply. In fact, she gives a very lovely performance indeed, and her preference is to keep things on the move. This is, as I said, another way to perform late Schubert. What is rather strange is to find two such different ways in the same performance.

In a certain sense, I suppose it’s rather endearing to find artists of this calibre busking it up, I do this bit my way, now you do this bit your way, without even trying to work out a common interpretation. At several points the clarinet echoes the phrase the voice has just sung, but it’s a lazy sort of echo which promptly slows down. Better this than a chromium-plated interpretation fresh from the committee room and I’d as soon hear Helen Donath sing this music as anyone. However, I said "as soon", not "sooner", and other famous sopranos have managed to set down spontaneous interpretations in which their clarinet partners collaborate in the same direction. The names and Dames of Felicity Lott and Margaret Price come to mind because I happen to have them, but there must be many others, and don’t forget Edith Wiens (CBC MVCD 1053 if available), a lovely singer who doesn’t often get mentioned because she recorded only rarely.

Most alternative performances come with more Schubert, though, so this is where the Arts Archives disc begins to earn its place.

Der Hirt auf dem Felsen is a late work, yet unlike Die Winterreise or the last piano sonatas it may be felt to sum up all that is most delightful, rather than all that is most deep, in Schubert. It spawned a good many imitations. Sopranos who have teamed up with a clarinettist for the Schubert and wonder what else they can do all together will probably know the other pieces on this disc. They are less demanding on the voice than the Schubert but turn up in recitals rather less often. Sopranos who use the Schubert to parade the top B they hope will be all right on the night – no reference to Donath, obviously – might be encouraged to prefer these other pieces.

Lieder buffs will already have spotted from the title of the first Lachner that it sets the same Heine poem as the opening song of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben, and the second is of course that of Mendelssohn’s "On wings of song". On its own terms the music is conversational and delightful, as is the Kalliwoda, and Donath makes the most of any opportunities for characterisation that come her way. The formula is the same as the Schubert: a long introduction for clarinet, occasional duetting and some clarinet interludes during which one fears – usually rightly – for what Klöcker might have to offer in the way of unscripted rallentandos.

I suppose Spohr must have known the Schubert, but he was enough of his own man to adopt a quite different manner altogether. Voice and clarinet mingle with a contrapuntal ease that is so natural it never draws attention to itself. The piano parts, too, are somewhat more than merely chordal and the songs are well contrasted. This is not the sort of music where you can run two different interpretations alongside one another and the trio rise to a collaboration of a quite different order. Donath shows that she can be dramatic as well as lyrical and Klöcker brings an unexpected toughness where required. I don’t always find Spohr particularly inspiring but these songs are minor masterpieces. As I listened to these I began to wonder if this should be a Record of the Month. I suppose not when they are reservations about the rest, amiable as it is. But lieder collectors who don’t know the Spohr – which occupies almost half the disc – have a treat in store.

The recording is absolutely excellent and there are informative notes by Klöcker. The English translation has been carelessly proof-read, though. We are not told the source of the recording but a collaboration with RIAS Berlin is mentioned so I suppose it was originally made for broadcasting. Any more lieder from Helen Donath in their archives?

Christopher Howell


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