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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Schwanengesang D957 (1828, compiled posthumously) [52:26]
Herbst D945 (1828) [3:41]
Der Winterabend D938 (1828) [6:58]
Robert Holl (bass-baritone)
Roger Vignoles (piano)
rec. All Saints, East Finchley, London, 9-11 January 2008
HYPERION CDA67657 [63:17]
Experience Classicsonline

Hyperion have scaled great heights in their recordings of Schubert lieder, not least in their edition of the complete Schubert songs. Especially when one bears this in mind, this current recording is a disappointment.

The first tracks I listened to on this disc were the last two, included as contrasting fillers, and it is in these that the flaws of this disc are most obviously laid bare. The biggest problem is the Robert Holl. His voice immediately appears over-sized for these gentle songs. One is left with an impression of a thick, unwieldy voice which fits the grander songs but is really not at all suitable for the endless subtleties of most of the songs on this disc. Equally seriously, Holl gives few gradations of volume, but sings in a fairly constant mezzo-forte throughout, ruining the piano moments. He even goes flat on more than one occasion during the final song. Why on earth wasn’t this picked up and smoothed out before release? 

The great final cycle itself fares a little better, but the same problems are there. Holl’s weightiness suits the big numbers such as Der Atlas and he plays the gruff soldier of Kriegers Ahnung very well. He is perhaps at his best during the severe nature-painting of Aufenthalt, with its roaring forest and immovable rock, all too appropriate images for his own approach to this work. The pianissimo moments are ruined, though, such as the climax of Kriegers Ahnung which sounds altogether too strained. Hyperion’s producers must shoulder some of the blame for this, however, because the balance feels all wrong throughout the recording: Holl is too far forward, while the piano feels too distant, so we struggle to hear Vignoles’ marvellous accompaniment while Holl is too close for comfort. Furthermore, with such an overpowering approach to Der Doppelgänger, the final song, Die Taubenpost feels out of place. We feel as though it has been sprung upon us with no preparation and so it seems uncomfortable and anachronistic; a shame, considering the natural culmination that it can appear in some hands. 

All is not entirely lost: the opening song, Liebesbotschaft, sees Holl pare down his voice somewhat. The stasis of In der Ferne suits him very well, and generally the Heine settings of the second half of the cycle come off better than the first. Vignoles, that most intelligent of British accompanists, provides an indispensable contribution throughout: listen to the sinister rippling of the piano as the boat approaches the shore in Die Stadt, or the exuberant awakening of nature in Frühlingssehnsucht. That makes it all the more a shame that he is balanced so far back. Vignoles also provides the notes, which are up to Hyperion’s usual excellent standard. The cycle is discussed in terms of its overall structure, but each song also has thorough analysis of its own, with enlightening insights into both the music and the poetry. Vignoles also suggests an alternative listening order to the Heine songs. Listening to them in the order in which the poems were written rather than that in which the music was composed gives coherence to the narrative and heightens the sense of drama, though he admits that it somewhat undermines the musical arc. 

A disappointing release, then, mainly due to the mismatch of voice to repertoire and the poor balance. This becomes all the more pronounced when once considers the incredible competition for this cycle: Mathias Goerne and Thomas Quasthoff have both provided excellent baritone interpretations recently, while Fischer-Dieskau and Hotter are both peerless in very different ways. If you want to try something very different but uniquely satisfying, however, then listen to Brigitte Fassbaender’s performance on DG: even if you don’t like it you certainly won’t forget it.

Simon Thompson


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