Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Gretchen am Spinnrade, D.118 [3:39]
Heidenröslein, D.257 [1:47]
Rastlose Liebe, D.222 [1:17]
Ganymed, D. 544 [3:52]
Geheimnis, D. 719 [1:37]
Auf dem See, D. 543 [3:23]
Der Musensohn, D. 764 [2:01]
Suleika I, D. 720 [5:10]
Suleika II, D. 717 [4:19]
Dass sie hier gewesen, D. 775 [2:52]
Sei mir gegrüßt, D. 741 [5:20]
Du bist die Ruh’, D. 776 [4:01]
Lachen und Weinen, D. 777 [1:42]
Seligkeit, D. 443 [1:56]
An die Nachtigall, D. 497 [1:19]
Wiegenlied, D. 498 [2:25]
An Grabe Anselmos, D. 504 [3:10]
An die Musik, D. 547 [2:43]
Die Forelle, D. 550 [2:11]
Auf dem Wasser zu singen, D. 774 [3:10]
Die junge Nonne, D. 828 [3:52]
An Sylvia, D. 891 [2:50]
Ständchen, D. 889 [1:51]
Arleen Auger (soprano); Lambert Orkis (fortepiano)
rec. No details supplied
VIRGIN CLASSICS VIRGO 628598 2 [67:56]

The American soprano Arleen Auger was not quite fifty-four when she died of a brain tumour in 1993. By a sad coincidence, Lucia Popp died of a similar disease later in the same year, and at almost the same age. Both were singers I admired enormously.

No recording details are given for this reissued Virgin collection of Schubert Lieder, but the sessions seem to have taken place shortly after she recorded her disc in the Hyperion series in October 1989. That recital, “Schubert and the Theatre”, featured several songs encountered relatively rarely, whereas the present collection is stuffed full of old favourites, with only very few titles likely to make their first appearance on the shelves of seasoned Schubert collectors.

The combination of programme, singer and giveaway price makes this disc an excellent place for a Schubert debutant to set out on what is surely one of the most wonderful voyages in all music. But beware: the outstanding accompanist, Lambert Orkis, plays not on a modern piano, but on a period instrument. The word “fortepiano” in tiny print is the only indication of this, a disservice to potential purchasers, as not everyone is committed to the period practice cause, and the sound of the fortepiano will surprise those unprepared for it.

The performances are lovely, though the recital does not have the most promising start, with Auger a little matronly as Gretchen. She varies the three verses of Heidenröslein with delightful subtlety, however, and sounds breathlessly in love for Rastlose Liebe, so things do improve thereafter.

I have a vivid memory from my student days of agreeing to accompany a young soprano’s singing lesson. Sadly, our musical liaison did not get very far, as the score she placed in front of me was Der Musensohn! Lambert Orkis is brilliant in this fiendish piece, and the fortepiano helps keep the music tripping along too, the instrument better suited, I think, than a modern grand, however marvellously played. The fortepiano also helps make something altogether more intimate and inward of Ganymed than is often the case, and Auger sings this song with a fine blend of expressiveness and near-classical restraint. Pianist and instrument also collaborate wonderfully well to evoke the rocking of the waves and twinkling of the stars in Auf dem See.

The right-hand chords in An Sylvia, on the other hand, plod a little here, and I feel sure that a modern piano would have helped differentiate between the two elements which make up the accompaniment of this very familiar song. Only at a very few points in the recital, however – when one notices the lack of sustaining power in the upper register, for example – does the fortepiano remind me of the instrument that used to sit in grandma’s best room. If this comparison seems flippant, please believe that it is seriously meant.

The programme has been carefully compiled. In general, poets are kept together, with seven Goethe settings to open the recital, for example. And it all flows well, as when a poised Du bist di Ruh’ is followed by a deliciously light-hearted Lachen und Weinen.

Already mentioned is Auger’s skill in varying the different verses of strophic songs. In Wiegenlied, a subtly veiled tone and reducing the already restrained dynamic level still further in the third verse is enough to create a personal reading without overwhelming what is musically a very simple song. These small details serve to freshen up some very familiar repertoire: careful control of dynamics allows The Trout to remain a cheerful experience without diminishing the impact of the little drama at the heart of the story.

This is fine singing, and Lambert Orkis is fully at one with his singer. If the overall effect is a little bland – and it is – I think this is because the recital seems resolutely small-scale. Then there many old favourites here, and we are bound to have performances of them that we cherish. I usually want to go back to Janet Baker in Die junge Nonne, for example. She penetrates to the heart of the words and music more profoundly than Auger does here, beautifully though she sings. An die Musik is given a lovely performance, but I think I will never hear one of this miraculous piece to match that of Thomas Quasthoff, recorded at the Wigmore Hall in January 1997, and released on a BBC Music Magazine disc. There are other examples, but listeners without such baggage will not have this problem, and in any event the recital is very pleasing on its own terms. All the same, I think I’m likely to come back to those songs with which I was least familiar. The gentle melancholy of An Grabe Anselmos, for example, is a particular pleasure, especially in a performance as beautifully poised and expressive as this.

I subjected only one song to comparative listening, the sublime Rückert setting Dass sie hier gewesen. It was an instructive exercise, showing how different three artists can be in the same song whilst remaining true to it. Philip Langridge (Hyperion) seems very slow, the regret and sadness at love unsatisfied heartbreakingly expressed. Lucia Popp’s even slower, live performance (BBC Legends), brings an almost operatic intensity. Arleen Auger is more straightforward, with greater variety of tempo within the song, the sadness more restrained. She more than holds her own in this group of three, all now gone, all so sadly missed.

William Hedley

A lovely recital, and a perfect way to begin a Schubert Lieder collection.