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Franz SCHUBERT (1797 - 1828)
An die Musik
see track listing after review
Klaus Mertens (bass-baritone), Tini Mathot (fortepiano)
rec. September 2011, Zuidervermaning, Westzaan (NL)
Sung text enclosed.

Experience Classicsonline

More than six years ago I reviewed a recording of Schubert’s Winterreise with the same musicians as here (see review). I found it very interesting for several reasons. Here was a singer with his roots in baroque repertoire - his teacher was the famous Bach bass Jacob Stämpfli. His accompanist had also been nurtured in the baroque tradition and played a fortepiano, brittle in tone with limited dynamics. I drew the parallel then with the restoration of old paintings that have darkened through the centuries and then suddenly come out with a revelatory lustre and richness of colours. At the same time I saw the reverse side of the coin: the greatness of the music was diminished, it was small scale both due to the keyboard instrument but also due to the singer’s baroque training with straight tone and very little vibrato. I can imagine that this approach suited the 1820s Schubertiads, held in a fairly small venue with the listeners sitting very close to the musicians. I have a couple of times returned to that Winterreise and liked it as a concept but in the last resort found it lacking in temperament and dramatic truth. Even the soft, contemplative songs lose a dimension.
Approaching this new issue I decided to listen through headphones to get as close as possible to the music, to spend the recital at the feet of the singer as an attentive disciple of Master Mertens. It didn’t work too well and the greatest obstacle was the fortepiano, which probably wasn’t too backwardly positioned but still felt very distant. There was nothing wrong with the playing of Tini Mathot but there was too little of it. The accompaniment to Erlkönig, for instance, this perpetual ride through the darkness of the night and the howling of the wind - but there was a total lack of drama. It’s not only a matter of the accompaniment. The son is frightened, the father more and more aware of the unknown threat and the insinuating Erlkönig: all this is a dramatic scene that surpasses most operatic scenes - yet here it was lifeless. Mertens relates the story like someone reading a letter, but he doesn’t impersonate the characters. Better that than exaggerated histrionics, big gestures and rolling eye-balls, you may object, but I don’t think so. The whole ballad is so horrible that it must be uninhibitedly lived in - or not sung at all.
This is not an isolated example. Die Forelle, so effervescent, so full of life, is just the opposite here. Again it is too prosaic and - dull. These are two of the best known of any German songs. Even though we have heard them hundreds of times we have expectations and become disappointed when we get something that doesn’t live up to those expectations. On the other hand, as with John Elwes’s bewildering Winterreise (review) such an approach can put a work into a radically new perspective.
Here things misfire. The recessed accompaniments are partly to blame, discreetly tinkling in the background instead of being an equal partner. In addition there is often a sense of Mertens being too anonymous. His enunciation is, as ever, excellent but he doesn’t always convey the message. Frühlingsglaube is lethargic. Die Welt wird schöner mit jedem Tag (The world becomes more beautiful for every day) says Uhland’s poem, but there is no happiness in the reading. He continues and finishes with confidence Nun, armes Herz, vergiß der Qual! / Nun muß sich alles, alles wenden (Now, poor heart, forget the torment! Now everything, everything must change) but we hear no vision, no joy.
Klaus Mertens is a good Lieder singer and other songs fare much better. Prometheus has the required power and is suffused with the suffering of the titan. Goethe’s poem is a masterpiece and, in Edward Kravitt’s words, ‘with his alternations of ariosos and recitatives Schubert created a miniature oratorio’. Fischer-Dieskau and many other singers stress the operatic-dramatic qualities of the text, while Mertens with his oratorio background clearly adopts Kravitt’s concept. This is a very fine reading.
Der Tod und das Mädchen is also one of the best, not least through his soft and considerate impersonation of Death: Sei gutes Muts! Ich bin nicht wold, / Sollst sanft in meinem Armen schlafen! (Be in good heart! I am not wild. You will softly sleep in my arms!). The nervous eagerness of the concluding Rastlose Liebe, again a Goethe text, is also very well caught.
The sung texts are printed in the booklet but for non-German speakers it is a drawback that there are no translations. I would also have liked the poets’ names attached to each poem.
All in all a mixed recital with some real highlights but also some uncharacteristically bland readings.
Göran Forsling
Track listing
1. Der Musensohn, D 764 [2:23]
2. Litanei, D 343 [4:35]
3. Auf dem Wasser zu singen, D 774 [4:05]
4. Das Rosenband D 280 [2:06]
Gesänge des Harfners D 478 (5-7)
5. Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt [4:06]
6. Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen aß [4:43]
7. An die Türen will ich schleichen [2:03]
8. Erlkönig D 328 [5:10]
9. An die Musik D 547 [2:33]
10. An die Laute D 905 [1:29]
11. Prometheus D 674 [5:51]
12. Heidenröslein D 257 [1:48]
13. Frühlingsglaube D 686 [3:49]
14. Die Forelle D 550 [2:39]
15. Du bist die Ruh D 776 [3:43]
16. Ständchen D 957/4 [3:36]
17. Der Tod und das Mädchen D 531 [2:48]
18. Schäfers Klagelied D 121 [3:02]
19. Lachen und Weinen D 777 [2:14]
20. Memnon D 541 [4:36]
21. Rastlose Liebe D 138 [1:43]

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