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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
A Lost World Songs and Duets
Susanna Phillips (soprano), Shenyang (bass), Brian Zeger (piano)
rec. 2017, Purchase Recital Hall, SUNY Purchase, New York
Sung texts with English translations enclosed
DELOS DE3544 [66:25]

Brian Zeger, the pianist on this recording, was also the mastermind behind the programme. The background was an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, featuring works from the archeological site at Pergamon in modern-day Turkey. They wanted a concert to accompany the exhibition and Brian Zeger was asked to put together the programme. He immediately thought of the early German Romantic poets, whose imaginations were triggered by Greek myths and literature, and Schubert had set many of their poems to music. Brian Zeger soon found that he already knew many of those settings but was also delighted to find songs he didn’t know. In his foreword to the present recital he writes: “Many listeners are familiar with Schubert’s better-known songs – distillations of deep feelings about love, death, nature and the metaphysical. To encounter these same themes through the lens of the classical world, adds an extra dimension to the songs as ‘lost world’ continues to resonate to the present day.”

Not many of the songs in this programme can be counted as ‘standard repertoire’, but many of them have exactly the same musical qualities as the masterpieces we all like to return to over and over again, on records and in live performances. Ganymed (tr. 10) and Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren (tr. 12) ought to be fairly familiar to regular Lieder listeners, but I’m pretty sure that most lovers of Schubert songs will discover, when they listen to this disc, that there are hidden treasures among his lesser-known works. A good baker’s dozen are exposed here. The three poets featured were among those he most frequently returned to. All in all he set 44 poems by Schiller, 47 by Mayrhofer and 80 by Goethe. All three were also deeply at home with the classics. Maybe the rarest of the songs are the two duets, Hektors Abschied (tr. 2) and Antigone und Oedip (tr. 5), and it is good to have them here. It was also a good idea – and rather self-evident – to allot about the same number of solo songs to each singer. Since the songs, well-known or not, are from Schubert’s top-drawer – and it seems that it was his only drawer, apart from some of his earliest mammoth efforts – the disc can be warmly recommended from a repertoire point of view. When it comes to the execution of it I have to come up with some reservations. Both singers are well-merited, American soprano Susanna Phillips was in 2010 the recipient of the Metropolitan Opera’s Beverly Sills Artist Award and has appeared at the Met and elsewhere in numerous leading roles. Chinese bass-baritone Shenyang was the 2007 winner of BBC Cardiff Singer of the World and 2010 winner of the Montblanc New Voices at Stars of the White Nights Festival. He also appears at the Met. Susanna Phillips sings carefully and is well nuanced but the tone is rather hard and trembling at forte and her vibrato a little disturbing at times. Shenyang has a strong voice and his singing is dramatic but not very sophisticated. He can, however, scale down and be very expressive. But a lot is delivered at an unremitting forte. This was the first impression, but both singers show along the way other qualities as well. Susanna Phillips is at her very best in Ganymed (tr. 10) with glowing, joyous singing, while Shenyang’s piano and pianissimo singing is exquisite in Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren (tr. 12).

Generally both singers have good insights in the songs and make nuanced and expressive readings but neither of them have really attractive voices. One can, though, after some initial disappointment, accept the tonal deficiencies and appreciate the readings, which are never dull. In the last resort some disappointment remains. Others may be more tolerant and I recommend sampling before buying.

A mixed bag then but the repertoire is basically unhackneyed and Brian Zeger’s accompaniments are first class in every respect.

Göran Forsling

1. Die Götter Griechenlands [4:27]
2. Hektors Abschied [5:02]
3. Der entsühnte Orest [3:03]
4. Iphigenia [3:01]
5. Antigone und Oedip [5:06]
6. Gruppe aus dem Tartarus [3:10]
7. Fahrt zum Hades [5:14]
8. Elysium [8:33]
9. An Schwager Kronos [2:38]
10. Ganymed [4:19]
11. Prometheus [5:32]
12. Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren [3:03]
13. Grenzen der Menschheit [7:48]
14. Der zürnenden Diana [5:18]

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