Schubert Lieder on CD

[We welcome Maurice Richter to our little slice of cyberspace. Dr Richter, a mathematician, is the most authoritative voice buff we’ve ever met, and we regard it as our great good luck that he agrees to contribute to La Folia. Frequently, we hope. Ed.]

Maurice Richter

[November 1998. Originally appeared in La Folia 1:4.]

The German lied (art song) is one of the great glories of music, and Schubert is one of its pre-eminent masters. Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven certainly composed some fine songs, but it remained for Schubert to achieve real perfection in a previously unattained unification of poetic text and music. His wonderful sense of melody and expressive harmony combined to explore the text of a poem to a much greater depth than ever before. The incredible variety of mood, feeling, emotion and even the profound drama achieved by Schubert in his more than six hundred songs were unprecedented.

The texts he set to music come from the greatest of German lyric poets — Goethe, Schiller and Heine — as well as lesser poets like Müller (who are today remembered primarily because of the Schubert songs inspired by their texts) and finally, friends like Mayrhofer and Schober, who were part of Schubert’s circle of friends.

Schubert’s very first compositional masterpiece was, in fact, not a symphony, a piano sonata, nor a quartet, but rather a song — “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (“Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel”) based on a Goethe poem from his Faust. In a brilliant master stroke, Schubert takes the rapid spinning of the wheel as the basis of his piano accompaniment, unifying the song through its changing moods and capturing all the complex emotions as Gretchen recalls her lover. At the climax of the song, with Gretchen overwhelmed with deep emotion, the spinning wheel (and the piano accompaniment) comes to a momentary halt, tentatively resuming its whirring as she recovers — a magical moment in a song written in 1814 at the ripe young age of seventeen. The vividly intense emotions of the young girl are captured perfectly by the music.

As well as encapsulating the most intimate of emotions, Schubert achieved epic drama in songs like “Erlkönig” (“The Erl King”). Here, too, the song is unified by having the piano part this time imitate the galloping of the horse, as it did the spinning wheel in “Gretchen am Spinnrade.” In “Erlkönig” too, there is a slow buildup of tension. The four separate voices of the narrator, the frightened child, the reassuring father, and the chillingly seductive Erl King are brilliantly contrasted. It is a tour de force of concentrated high drama, breaking new ground in the song literature. Schubert’s ability to respond so passionately to imaginative poetry enabled him to produce songs whose unity of conception and level of expression have not been surpassed.

Both “Gretchen am Spinnrade” and “Erlkönig” are set to texts by Goethe (as were many other Schubert songs). In fact, it is Goethe, as seminal to German literature as Shakespeare is to English, who is the very wellspring of the German lied. A total of fifty-nine poems by Goethe were set to music by Schubert, some of them in several different settings.

Schubert’s more than six hundred songs comprise four principal types — first, the simple strophic song which repeats the same music for each successive verse; second, the modified strophic song, in which successive verses are not just set to exactly the same music but where any number of varied techniques introduce new musical ideas along with the repeated music; third, the durchkomponiert (through-composed) song where various melodies and interpolated recitatives are unified by a repeated, basically unchanging piano accompaniment; and finally, the scena, which is made up of separate episodes, each of different mood and tempo.

The amazing variety of Schubert’s melodies, their warmth, pathos, directness, and strength are astonishing, as is the fertility with which he poured forth so many masterpieces of the genre.

One hallmark of Schubert’s work is his constant shift from a minor key to a major (and, less often, vice versa) to represent an emotional change. Then, too, he often shifts suddenly into the key a major third below his tonic, as in “Nacht und Träume,” (“Night and Dreams”) where the shift is from B major to G major. Another element of Schubert’s greatness is the way in which his piano accompaniments capture the inner essence of a poem or the details of a nature setting. He has at his command an endless variety of pianistic devices to portray, for example, the shimmering of nighttime stars or the running water of a brook or the glint of light falling on water. He is a master at condensing a dramatic source into lyric terms, essentially reducing opera with an orchestra to voice with piano, thereby distilling the work of an entire company of participants down to just two — a singer and an accompanist.

The lieder of Schubert have fared extraordinarily well on record, with a variety and completeness that sometimes make choice difficult for those wanting a small sampling of his songs. One of the finest of all Schubert compilations is a collection of twelve of his best songs sung by one of the greatest lieder singers of the century, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, with Edwin Fischer at the piano. Schwarzkopf’s passionate involvement with the songs, her radiantly beautiful voice in its absolute prime, the subtlety and expressivity she brings to each song, the special innigkeit that always characterizes her art, the careful attention to the meanings of the words — all combine to make this one of the finest of all lieder recordings. The intimacy and poignancy she brings to such songs as “Nachtviolen” (“Dame’s Violets”) have rarely, if ever, been matched. Each performance here is an object lesson in lieder singing. The recording, made in mono sound in October of 1952, was originally released on an LP that lasted a mere forty-two and a half minutes. Now, beautifully remastered and combined with an equally fine recital of Mozart lieder recorded a few years later, this disc (EMI CDC 7 47326-2) is an absolute gem, essential to any collection of vocal art.

Probably the greatest of Schubert song interpreters are Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. The great baritone, who recorded more lieder than any other singer, has become a touchstone against which all other male singers must be measured. It is difficult to exaggerate his historical importance or the superlative qualities of his art. Both he and Schwarzkopf were noted for the great care and attention they gave the words they sang — both possessed a high intelligence, an unmatched ability to color a musical phrase precisely, and to shade a musical line with unparalleled nuance.

Fischer-Dieskau’s career began shortly after the end of World War II and expanded rapidly. Opera, oratorio, the concert stage, the lieder recital — he excelled in all of these, displaying an extraordinarily sensitive musicianship along with a warmth that in softer passages could become beautifully tenorial. His astonishing versatility manifested itself when, after having made many highly praised recordings of Schubert songs, Fischer-Dieskau, in a monumental three-volume project, proceeded to capture on twenty-one CDs (originally released on LP) all of the Schubert songs appropriate to the male voice (including the song-cycles Die schöne Müllerin, Schwanengesang, and Winterreise). The first volume (nine CDs, Deutsche Grammophon 437215-2) was recorded between 1966 and 1968, the second (also nine CDs, DG 437225-2) in 1969, and the third (three CDs, DG 437235-2) containing the three song cycles in 1971-72. The accompanist in all of these was the redoubtable Gerald Moore. The three volumes together comprise one of the great projects of recording history. In the first two volumes the songs are essentially arranged in chronological order. The transfers to CD are perfect. Schubert’s endlessly fertile imagination is beautifully served, with songs of high drama succeeding quieter songs of great lyric beauty, only to be followed by light-hearted romps — the variety of mood is astonishing. Here are some of the greatest songs ever written, along with many unfamiliar gems. The twenty-one discs in three volumes are available at mid-price. Accompanying booklets provide text and translations as well as informative articles (one by Fischer-Dieskau) on Schubert himself. These CDs are highly recommended to anyone with an interest in this profoundly worthwhile investment. For those wanting only a sampling of this great set, the obvious choice is Volume III, containing the three song cycles Die schöne Müllerin, Schwanengesang, and Winterreise. (The various recordings of the cycles will be reviewed in a later article).

Those wanting only a single collection of Schubert songs (aside from his song cycles) sung by Fischer-Dieskau will find an excellent investment in the mid-priced EMI CD Schubert: Twenty-one Songs (EMI CDM 7 69503-2) on which Fischer-Dieskau, along with his most frequent accompanist, the wonderfully insightful Gerald Moore, brings his unique magic to some of Schubert’s finest songs. Just listen to the way he colors his tone to distinguish the contrasting voices of the four characters — narrator, father, son, and Erl King in “Erlkönig” The recordings date from 1958 and 1965, and the freshness and ardor of the singing are well worth a listen.

There are many other recordings of Schubert songs by Fischer-Dieskau, and almost any one of them is worth having. In general, the more youthful recordings from the 1950Ís display a voice of great freshness combined with extraordinary musical intelligence, while those of his middle years in the mid to later 1960Ís and 70Ís show even greater musical insights. The later recordings from the 80Ís show a voice that despite Fischer-DieskauÍs possibly even more subtle interpretations begins to show the inevitable loss of complete control, with an occasional hectoring in more forceful passages. One fine recording from Fischer-Dieskau’s earlier years contains a live Schubert recital given at the Salzburg Festival on August 5, 1957. This fine CD, recorded in mono, contains sixteen of Schubert’s best songs and is on Orfeo C 140 101 A. Gerald Moore is the always reliable accompanist. Another CD from 1977, recorded in stereo, presents Fischer-Dieskau this time with the great Sviatoslav Richter as accompanist in another live Salzburg Festival recital of twenty-three Schubert songs, this one on Orfeo C 334 931 B. Both of these are representations of Schubert singing at its finest. The latter, with Richter, is a good supplement to any other Schubert lieder disc, for it contains eighteen lieder, quite a few of them among Schubert’s lesser known songs, along with five of the most well-known ones sung as encores. The artistry of both Fischer-Dieskau and Richter is stunning, and only occasionally does the listener become aware that the aging voice begins to show a few minor imperfections of technique — and these are mere specks in a dazzling display of the artistry of both performers. The earlier of these two discs shows a smoother, obviously more youthful voice with an easier legato and a simpler delivery; in the later CD the voice is more gravelly, a bit less winningly lyrical. This, however, is not a serious drawback, because the overall artistry and command of the métier put many other singers in the shade. One drawback for many listeners is the fact that while the Gerald Moore disc contains notes and complete texts of the songs (in the original German, with English translations — albeit in small print), the second disc — with Richter — contains notes but no song texts, an outrageous kind of omission which has become all too common in CD releases.

A particularly delightful collection of Schubert songs is on a mid-priced collection of four CDs in the Philips “The Early Years” series, Elly Ameling Sings Schubert Lieder (Philips 438 528-2). These recordings were made from 1972 to 1984, and their sound as remastered for CD is beautifully open and natural. The accompanists are Dalton Baldwin on the first three discs, and Rudolf Jansen on the fourth. The four CDs provide a marvelous sampling of some of the greatest Schubert lieder, sung with a voice that is fresh, pure, natural, direct, seemingly artless, and open. AmelingÍs art is a less sophisticated one than Schwarzkopf’s. With Ameling there is much less shading of individual words, less variety of emotion, but a rather more direct spontaneity of gesture allied to a really beautiful voice. The freshness and openness of Ameling’s approach are more immediate — here, you feel, is a young a girl singing, while with Schwarzkopf one is more conscious of the art. The individual songs are beautifully sung, but in such a song as “Seeligkeit” (“Bliss”), for example, Ameling does not radiate the warm joy of a Schwarzkopf or an Elisabeth Schumann. One occasionally longs for more than a beautiful voice — for more emotional involvement, greater variety of expression. Such perfection of tone and production can become monotonous. The songs all ultimately begin to sound alike.

Some of the high points of the collection are an exquisitely sung “Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt” (“Only One Who Knows Longing”) on the second disc, performed with quiet intensity and genuine feeling as well as the two “Suleika” songs, both sung with disarming simplicity and the exquisite command of legato that Ameling displays in all her singing. Also on the second disc is “Der König in Thule” (“The King in Thule”), sung with a freshness befitting its folk-song character. The third disc opens with a simple, quietly poignant “An die Musik” (“To Music”) and contains a lovely performance of “Sei mir gegrüsst” (“I Greet You”). The fourth disc is graced with a sprightly, utterly delightful “Der Musensohn” (“Son of the Muses”). A pretty “Auf dem Wasser zu Singen” (“To be Sung on the Water”) is not a match for the more varied, more deeply felt, more joyous Schwarzkopf performance. The four discs contain a total of seventy-four Schubert songs.

Despite the few criticisms leveled above, this four-disc mid-priced set is a gem and well worth acquiring. Unfortunately the notes, while they contain the complete German texts of all the songs, contain no translations. Two invaluable sources that help remedy this problem include The Fischer-Dieskau Book of Lieder (Limelight Editions, New York, 1984), containing the original texts with English translations of more than seven hundred fifty songs, as well as an essay on German song by Fischer-Dieskau, and The Ring of Words–An Anthology of Song Texts by Philip L. Miller (W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1973). Both of these are paperbacks.

Kathleen Battle, with James Levine as an impeccable, ever-sensitive accompanist, sings seventeen Schubert songs on Deutsche Grammophon 419 237-2. This is a particularly fine selection of the songs, covering a period of thirteen years in SchubertÍs short life. His ability to capture the expressive quality of the poems in songs of longing, of rapture, of reverie, of laughter or of religious fervor constantly amazes. The recordings date from 1985 and 1987, and BattleÍs pure, girlish soprano is lovely to listen to, though occasionally one wishes for more variety of emotion. In such a song as “Nacht und Träume” (“Night and Dreams”) she slowly spins out a long legato line that is beautifully sustained. In the last song, “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen” (“The Shepherd on the Rock”) composed in 1828, the year of SchubertÍs death, he broke the bounds of the song with piano by introducing an obbligato clarinet. Battle and Levine are joined here by Karl Leister on the clarinet for a fine rendition of this gem of the song literature, sung with a freshness and ardor that make it a highlight of the disc. The collaboration among the three artists brings a beautifully shaded, heartfelt performance in which Battle seems more emotionally involved than in some of the other songs.

On Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 05472-77296-2, the fine tenor Christoph Prégardien, accompanied by Andreas Staier at the fortepiano, sings eleven songs to poems of Friedrich Schiller. After Goethe, Schiller is the poet Schubert most frequently set to music. For some of the Schiller poems, Schubert composed three or even four different settlings, so enamored was he of the poet. This CD contains both completely strophic song settings, such as “Des Mädchens Klage” (“The Girl’s Lament”), as well as more freely constructed songs like “Der Alpenjäger” (“The Alpine Hunter”). Here Schubert composes three strophes constituting a dialogue between a mother and her son, in which she tries to dissuade him from going off hunting. Three more strophes follow in which the son does go off to hunt a gazelle in the mountains, with the change of setting prompting totally new music. A seventh strophe brings in a sudden change of key and of mood, transforming the song into a dramatic scene. Finally, the ballad — an extended combination of melody, recitative, and narrative or descriptive music — is represented here by two examples, “Die Bürgschaft” (“The Hostage”) and “Leichenphantasie” (“Funereal Fantasy”), the former lasting over seventeen minutes and the latter more than nineteen. “Die Bürgschaft” is an intensely dramatic extended ballad, truly operatic in scope. Prégardien beautifully captures the variety of mood and emotion implicit in SchillerÍs famous ballad. He is always sensitive to the meaning of the text, shading and varying his beautiful voice with complete command. In “Hektors Abschied” (“HectorÍs Farewell”) Prégardien brings both power and quiet tenderness where they are needed. In all the songs on this disc he evinces a superb command of the long lyrical or dramatic line. In “Der Pilgrim” (“The Pilgrim”) the repetition of the last line “Und das Dort ist niemals hier!” (“And yonder is never here!”) is absolutely wrenching.

With “Gruppe aus Dem Tartarus” (“Group in Tartarus”) Schubert dramatically depicts the damned in the underworld, racked by pain, eyes empty with despair, hoping for an end to their torment. Schubert masterfully gives the musical setting of the poem no harmonic center but rather shifts chromatically through a wide variety of keys, mirroring the despair and anxiety of the text. Prégardien perfectly captures the drama of the song — this is lieder singing at its best. In all the songs on this disc, Prégardien’s passionate sincerity, ability to communicate immediately the essence of the text and fine lyrical splendor are caught in a warm, open recording with sympathetic accompaniments by Staier. Excellent notes and complete texts in German and English are provided. A fascinating, worthwhile addition to any collection of lieder, this one is highly recommended.

In An die Musik –Favorite Schubert Songs (Deutsche Grammophon 445 294-2), Bryn Terfel, beautifully accompanied by Malcolm Martineau, sings twenty-three of the most well-known Schubert lieder. Terfel, the Welsh baritone who has become one of the most exciting singers of the day, offers commanding performances of high drama and sweet lyricism. In SchubertÍs famous serenade, “Ständchen,” his soft singing perfectly mirrors the words “Softly through the night my songs entreat you…” This is not just pretty singing but rather intensely private communication of a magical mood. In all these songs there is an immediacy of communication, an individuality, a wide range of dynamics, a complete mastery of technical means and expressive ends. TerfelÍs “Erlkönig” brings high drama and searing intensity, the four voices of the narrator, the father, the child, and the Erl King dramatically differentiated. The famous last line “In seinen Armen das Kind war tod” (“In his arms the child was dead”) is delivered in a spine-chilling whisper. “Wandrers Nachtlied II” (“Wanderer’s Night Song II”) brings a hushed silence and sweet lyricism that are truly beautiful. Schubert’s great ode to music “An die Musik” is sung with a simple directness that is deeply moving. This is followed immediately by the strikingly extroverted drama of “Auf der Bruck” (“On the Bruck”), and the contrast in mood between the two songs is indicative of the great musical intelligence that has gone into the programming and that permeates each song. One is always aware of a personal, intensely dramatic involvement in the individual songs — this is some of the most exciting Schubert singing in recent years. Martineau’s piano is beautifully balanced with the voice in a warm, full recording acoustic. The playing is a joy — sensitively matching the many shades of light and dark in Terfel’s singing. Highly recommended.

A famous historic set offered Elisabeth Schumann, whose silvery voice, enduring warmth, and deep emotional involvement in all she sang were captured originally on 78 rpm recordings and were later dubbed onto two LPs. The recordings were made from 1927 to 1949. A selection of some of these songs, recorded between 1933 and 1945, is available on CD on Minerva MN-A22.

Schumann’s “Die Forelle” (“The Trout”) is direct, simple, and delightful. “Ave Maria” is sung as beautifully as in any recorded performance. “Auf dem Wasser zu singen” is luminous — her attention to individual words and enunciation make this one a fascinating performance. Her “Gretchen am Spinnrade” is taken more slowly and quietly than in many other recorded performances — Schwarzkopf brings greater urgency and intensity here. The long phrases of “Nacht und Träume” are beautifully captured. “Der Einsame” (“The Solitary”) is a highlight of the disc, as is “Nachtviolen.” There is a smile in her singing. These performances are very much worth hearing, though the sound, as might be expected from the recording dates, shows its age, with a muffled piano sound. The voice, however, comes through beautifully.

An ongoing, still not quite complete project to record all of Schubert’s songs is a major addition to the literature. At this writing, some thirty-one CDs have been released, with more to come. This incredible project, masterminded by Graham Johnson, who serves as piano accompanist, is an extraordinary labor of love. The English record label Hyperion, noted for its consistently excellent production values, does not stint here. Each of the discs employs a different singer, chosen from among the greatest soloists today, and Johnson is accompanist on all of them. This collection is such a monumental project that consideration of it must await a forthcoming review.

We have also not discussed recordings of Schubert’s three great song cycles, Die schöne Müllerin (consisting of twenty songs), Winterreise (twenty-four songs), and Schwanengesang (fourteen songs). The great number of competing recordings of these cycles necessitates a separate discussion, to appear in a forthcoming review.

A word is in order about the popularity — or rather lack of it — of the lied as an art form. Most FM stations that play classical music shy away from any vocal music and even more so from the lied. When I approached the director of a well-known chamber music series in New York and suggested to her that the intimate setting for these concerts was ideal for a lieder recital, she made a face expressing disgust at the mere thought and strongly voiced her disdain. Yes, there is a genuine difficulty of language. But at most lieder recitals, the printed program includes the poems that are set to music in the original language (usually German) along with an English translation. It seems odd to me that audiences who listened to opera in a potpourri of languages in the days before projected titles are unwilling to make the simple effort to open themselves to one of the greatest of art forms.

The song is probably the oldest of musical forms and arose as a means for the expression of human emotions long before the symphony, the quartet, or the concerto. The human voice is a natural instrument uniquely capable of expressing the deepest feelings. The amazing variety of songs — from narrative ballads to plaintive love songs to exquisite descriptions of a beautiful natural setting to songs rife with the humor of the human comedy — constitutes a legacy that is at the same time quite sophisticated and consummately simple. What glories abide in the songs of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, and Strauss, among others!