The 50 greatest Schubert recordings (2019 update)

Gramophone Wed 22nd May 2019

Here is a great way to start exploring Schubert's music, including many of the finest recordings from the last 100 years, featuring Sir Thomas Beecham, Alfred Brendel, Imogen Cooper, Gundula Janowitz, and many more

A warm welcome to Gramophone's guide to the 50 greatest Schubert recordings, which now joins our similar guides to the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Chopin and Handel. As before, we've focused on Gramophone Award-winning albums, Recordings of the Month, Editor's Choice discs and legendary earlier recordings from the likes of Artur Schnabel, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Paul Lewis, Bryn Terfel, Ian Bostridge, Karl Böhm and many more. We have tried to give a recommendation for every major work and we have included, where possible, the complete original Gramophone reviews, which are drawn from Gramophone's Reviews Database of more than 45,000 reviews. To find out more about subscribing to the Database, visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe.

The list begins with orchestral works, then moves through chamber and instrumental, and finishes with vocal. All of these lists are, of course, subjective, but every recording here has received the approval of Gramophone's critics and are artistic and musical benchmarks. So if you want to hear Schubert performance at its best, this list is the perfect place to start.

Apple Music subscribers can enjoy the Schubert: Greatest Recordings playlist that accompanies this feature and can also listen to most of the albums listed while reading the reviews.

Symphonies Nos 1-6, 8 & 9

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Karl Böhm

(DG) Recorded 1963-71

These are marvellous performances: vibrant, clear, characterful and effortlessly well played. The recordings, too, still seem new-minted, even the Ninth, the first of the symphonies to be recorded. The Berliners’ art is the art that disguises art. Böhm never feels the need to do anything clever but just quietly sees to it that this superb orchestra plays at its best. His way with the two late symphonies is, in fact, highly sophisticated. The Unfinished begins in what seems to be a leisurely fashion but his performance of the first movement catches Schubert’s mix of lyricism and high drama with extraordinary acuity. Conversely, the second movement seems swift but brings the work full circle, with an equally extraordinary sense of calm and catharsis in the final pages. The celebrated 1963 Ninth out-Furtwänglers Furtwängler in the myriad means it uses within a single grand design to capture the symphony’s sense of danger and derring-do in addition to its lyricism, nobility and earthy Austrian charm.

In the early symphonies, Böhm’s approach is simpler-seeming and more direct. Rhythms are so finely propelled, the pulse so effortlessly sustained, the music always lands on its feet. The zest comes from the stylish Berlin string-­playing; melodically, it’s the woodwinds (every one a Lieder singer) who catch the beauty of Schubert’s melodies and the skirl of the attendant descants. You won’t find yourself tiring of Böhm’s approach; he doesn’t give in to irritating idiosyncrasies (à la Harnoncourt), but ensures that the Schubertian stream is always clear to the ear and sweet to the taste.

Symphonies Nos 1-9

Academy of St Martin in the Fields / Sir Neville Marriner

(Philips)

Marriner's Schubert is light on its feet, full of sprung rhythms and gracefully=turned phrases. The early symphonies are a sheer delight in this cycle with some glorious playing by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. The later, great works like the Unfinished and the Great C major are also very appealing, with beautifully judged tempi and some wonderfully vivacious playing by these virtuoso musicians. In this repertoire, the competition tends to be from large symphony orchestras - BPO and Boöhm, Royal Concertgebouw and Harnoncourt, the NDRSO and Wand, to name three of the finest cycles - but Marriner's set can be confidently recommended if you respond to a more agile, 'modern' (though not 'authentic') approach.

Symphonies Nos 3, 5 & 6

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Thomas Beecham

(Warner Classics) Recorded 1955-59

Beecham was well into his seventies when he made these recordings with the Royal Philharmonic, the orchestra he had founded in 1946. His lightness of touch, his delight in the beauty of the sound he was summoning, the directness of his approach to melody and his general high spirits will all dominate our memory of these performances. But, listening again, we may be reminded that Beecham could equally well dig deep into the darker moments of these works. Schubert’s elation was rarely untroubled and the joy is often compounded by its contrast with pathos – Beecham had that balance off to a T. It should be noted that he doesn’t take all the marked repeats and he doctored some passages he considered over-repetitive. However, these recordings may also serve as a reminder of the wonderful heights of musicianship that his players achieved, as in the Trio of the Third.

String Quintet in C major, D956. String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D810 'Death and the Maiden'

Pavel Haas Quartet with Danjulo Ishizaka vc

Supraphon

This is good. Very good. Acclaim and the Pavel Haas Quartet are familiar bedfellows – after all, they did win Gramophone’s Record of the Year for their Dvořák two years ago. But this is their first recording that really steps into a crowded marketplace. They represent the best qualities of the Czech tradition – warmth, sonorousness, individuality, intensity; but what’s striking here is their fearless risk-taking, their fervency and the absolute confidence with which they propel you through these two masterpieces. In the Quintet they have the perfect partner in cellist Danjulo Ishizaka – and there’s no sense of a quartet plus one, which hampered the Takács Quartet’s recent reading.

Their tempi are unfailingly right to the extent that comparisons, for once, seem almost irrelevant. And the slow movement of the Quintet is aching but never emotes superficially; the way the players withdraw the sound at its close is absolutely mesmerising. The Belcea rein in the emotions to a greater degree (compare them at around nine minutes into this movement) but the Pavel Haas – with slightly more dragging, vulnerable phrasing from the first violin – are insanely memorable. They also judge transitions beautifully so that the two works unfold in a completely natural way: just sample the finale of the Quintet, at the point where the second idea, with its slightly wincing Viennese gaiety, gradually yields to the return of the troubled opening idea.

In the Quartet, too, there is much to admire: in the spectral closing minutes of the first movement; or in the slow-movement variations, where you’re held rapt as the first violin and then the cello take centre stage, and the ricocheting rhythms of the following variation – which can sound like gunshots in some performances – display a delicacy and a sense of dance. The crazed tarantella that closes the quartet is a tour de force, raw, visceral and with an emotional immediacy that is almost unbearable. Such is the intensity of the playing that by the end of the disc you, too, are quite exhausted. But that’s perhaps how it should be.

Will these highly personal interpretations stand the test of time as effectively as the slightly cooler readings from the Belcea and, in Death and the Maiden, the Takács? From this proximity it’s impossible to say, but I’d say the odds are pretty good.

String Quintet in C, D956

Hagen Quartet with Heinrich Schiff vc

(DG)

By following Boccherini in using two cellos instead of two violas for his String Quintet, Schubert increased the potential for greater textural contrast. Moreover, the dichotomy between the tragic perspective and Viennese gaiety in the Quintet, so evident in much of Schubert’s greatest music, generates an especially potent dramatic force.

The Hagen Quartet’s performance of the first movement, which presents remarkably clear textural detail, is broad and expansive. The Hagen include the exposition repeat in a movement that lasts almost 20 minutes. Perhaps as a consequence, they play the Adagio second movement at an unusually fast tempo. However, through breathtaking dynamic control in the first section, passionate intensity in the second, and engaging spontaneity of the ornamentation in the final section, the Hagen achieve an expression that’s powerfully compelling.

The second half of the Quintet is often treated as a period of emotional relief from the profound concentration of the first two movements. Startlingly, the Hagen maintain the tension with violent textural and dynamic contrast in the Scherzo, and distinctively varied registral sonority in the Trio. The finale, in which the Hagen effectively balance the music’s charming Hungarian flavour with its more sinister touches, provides an arresting conclusion.

The Hagen’s account of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge is polished and sensitive, and it vividly conveys the difference between Beethoven’s and Schubert’s compositional means. The Hagen’s is an outstanding disc, in which exceptional performances, that challenge the finest alternatives, are complemented by superb recording.

String Quintet. Symphony No 5

Isaac Stern, Alexander Schneider vns Milton Katims va Paul Tortelier vc Prades Festival Orchestra / Pablo Casals vc

(Sony Great Performances) Recorded 1952-53

This should have an in-built fail-safe against hasty consumption, in that the interpretative ingredients are so rich, varied and unpredictable that to experience it all at once is to invite mental and emotional exhaustion. Casals is the linchpin. A charismatic presence, he embraces everything with the passion of a devoted horticulturist tending his most precious flowers, and that his love extended beyond the realms of music to mankind itself surely enriched his art even further. The most celebrated Prades recording ever is still the Stern/Casals/Tortelier reading of the Quintet, a masterful traversal graced with elastic tempi, songful phrasing, appropriate rhetorical emphases (especially in the first and second movements) and fabulous string-playing. The coupling is a ‘first release’ of Schubert’s Fifth Symphony, recorded in 1953 – a warm, keenly inflected performance, jaunty in the outer movements and with an adoring, broadly paced Adagio. One presumes that it has been held from previous view only because of a few minor executant mishaps. It’s certainly well worth hearing. The transfer of the Quintet reveals itself as marginally warmer but occasionally less well-focused than previous incarnations. Still, the original was no sonic blockbuster to start with, but this shouldn’t deter you from hearing this disc.

Piano Quintet, ‘Trout’. String Quartet, 'Death and the Maiden'

Clifford Curzon pf Vienna Octet

(Decca)

it's Curzon and members of the Vienna Octet who remain my favourites—for their tautly sprung rhythm, their smiling charm and above all, their immediacy. In their own seeming delight in making music together, Curzon and his colleagues convey all the young Schubert's unalloyed happiness on that never-to-be-forgotten walking tour with Vogl in the summer of 1819.

Piano Quintet, ‘Trout’

Brendel pf Zehetmair vn Zimmermann va Duven vc Riegelbauer db

(Philips)

“The Schubert of this quintet is not the great Schubert, but the one whom we cannot help but love.” Pertinent sentiments (Alfred Einstein quoted by William Kinderman) although listening to this particular performance of the Trout suggests something of a compromise between ‘lovable’ and ‘great’. Brendel is of course the lynchpin and, as ever, balances heart and mind with innate good taste. Time and again I found myself overhearing detail that might otherwise have passed for nothing: every modulation tells (needless to say, this Andante probes deeper than most); every phrase of dialogue has been polished, pondered and carefully considered. And yet it is a dialogue, with the loose-limbed Thomas Zehetmair leading his supremely accomplished colleagues through Schubert’s delightful five-tier structure. The Scherzo and Allegro giusto frolic within the bounds of propriety (some will favour an extra shot of animal vigour), whereas the first, second and fourth movements are rich in subtle – as opposed to fussy – observations. The recording, too, is exceedingly warm, with only the occasional want of inner detail to bar unqualified enthusiasm (sample the main body of the first movement’s development, from say 10'03'' into track 1). As ever, Philips achieve a well-rounded, almost tangible piano tone.

String Quartets D703, D804, D810, ‘Death and the Maiden’ & D887

Quartetto Italiano

(Philips Duo)

Recorded 1965, 1976-77

The Italians’ playing has freshness, affection, firm control and above all authority to a degree that no relative newcomer can match. It’s notable not only for the highest standards of ensemble, intonation and blend, but also for its imaginative insights; these attributes readily apply to the music-making on this Duo reissue,
particularly in the slow movements. Indeed, the players’ progress through the wonderful set of variations in the Andante con moto, which reveals the Death and the Maiden Quartet’s association with the famous Schubert song of that name, has unforgettable intensity.

The comparable Andante of No 13, with its lovely Rosamunde theme – which is approached here in a relaxed, leisurely manner – is held together with a similar (almost imperceptible) sureness of touch. When this work was originally issued, the first-movement exposition repeat was cut in order to get the quartet complete on to a single LP side. Here it has been restored.

Finest of all is the great G major Quartet, a work of epic scale. The first movement alone runs to nearly 23 minutes and the players’ masterly grip over the many incidents that make up the Allegro molto moderato is effortless. For an encore we’re given the Quartettsatz, a piece on a smaller scale, but here presented with a comparable hushed intensity of feeling. This, like the Death and the Maiden, was recorded in 1965 and the textures are leaner than on the others, with a fractional edge on fortissimos. Nevertheless, the ear soon adjusts when the playing is as remarkable as this. The other recordings have more body and a fine presence. The CD transfers throughout are excellent.

String Quartets – D804 & D810, ‘Death and the Maiden’

Takács Quartet

(Hyperion)

With their Decca Beethoven cycle, the Takács Quartet set a modern-day benchmark. Now, with a new record company and a replacement viola player, things look set for them to do the same for Schubert’s two most popular string quartets. These works were written in 1824, a year of despondency for Schubert, who was ill and clearly felt he was living under the shadow of death. Whereas in the Rosamunde, the underlying feeling is a tearful nostalgia, in Death and the Maiden there’s a black despair that at times gives way to anger.

The Takács have the ability to make you believe that there’s no other possible way the music should go and the strength to overturn preconceptions that comes only with the greatest performers. Tempi are invariably apt – the opening of the Rosamunde is wonderfully judged. They also have a way of revealing detail that you’d never previously noticed – in the Allegro of D810, Schubert’s sighing figure in the viola is here poignantly brought out.

But though there’s plenty of humanity in these recordings, there’s nothing sentimental about the playing; they make Schubert sound symphonic, and a sense of drama and tensile strength underlines everything, even a movement as luscious as the Andante of the Rosamunde Quartet, which is based on the theme that gives this quartet its name.

The recording captures the quartets vividly and realistically and Misha Donat’s notes are erudite and stylish.

 

String Quartets – No 14, ‘Death and the Maiden’; No 15. String Quintet

Belcea Quartet with Valentin Erben vc

(Warner Classics)

The traditionally ceremonial key of C major takes on a different hue in Schubert’s Quintet. Its demands, ranging from the pensive to the passionate, don’t ruffle the Belcea Quartet and Valentin Erben. Take it for granted that the playing is on the loftiest level, ensemble always transparently clean; and the ability to think, listen and prepare as a coordinated team results in an extraordinarily cogent performance, sure in its grasp of phraseology, structure and dynamics.

Schubert spatters the music, virtually all his music, with filigree sounds, p to ppp, throwing in sudden changes of f to p from one note to another. Such details are always obeyed. Nothing is generalised, as can be heard at the last close of the slow movement, where absolute mastery over hushed tone, diaphanous texture and instrumental balance produces an awed stillness of time-stopping beauty. Here is technique fully subservient to emotional force not only in this movement, with its charged F minor middle section, but throughout the whole work.

Throughout the other works too. The Belcea’s response to Schubert’s kaleidoscopic moods, from anguished tempestuousness to poetic felicity, centres round their superfine sensitivity to all his markings. The very wide arc through which their softest dynamic layer swings across to its loudest is a critical factor in recreating the dramatic impact of D810 and D887, where the depiction of raw nerve ends and explosions of wrath also incur the most daunting challenges to performers. The Belceas don’t flinch from any of them. Nor do they slacken the tension inherent in the lines. Yet they punctuate the music with a yielding freedom of expression that allows phases to breathe; and Schubert’s last quartet, in scope probably his greatest and most disquieting, ends in an Allegro assai finale where the Belceas underline its message of discomfiture in a tour de force of icy intensity. Their executive aplomb and penetrating intelligence (both clearly conveyed in the recording) place the interpretation of this work, and indeed the whole set, on a pinnacle.

Octet

Gaudier Ensemble

(Hyperion)

An intriguing point arises in the second movement. It’s meant to be Adagio but the Gaudier pace it fairly swiftly, offering a reminder that one edition marks it Andante un poco mosso. The Gaudier, though, are anything but perfunctory. Their line is curvaceous and malleable, with a dynamic range that contains many shades of softness. Engineer Tony Faulkner has helped by using the ambience of the Henry Wood Hall to create both a blend and a distinctiveness of timbre. There’s a glow to the sound that other versions don’t have.

The Gaudier’s control over the grading of tonal intensity draws attention to the many passages in this work that are written piano or pianissimo; and where leavened by hairpin accents, stabbing sforzandos and even fortissimos they supply necessary impact without being crude. If there’s one movement that encapsulates all that’s striking about this performance, then it’s the fourth – an Andante with seven variations. Here’s an example of how these musicians balance themselves, and how they’ve thought about the different facets of the music. Were he alive today, this recording might even persuade Schubert scholar Maurice JE Brown to change his mind about the seventh variation, which he described as ‘a distasteful episode’.

 

Complete Trios

Beaux Arts Trio; Grumiaux Trio

(Philips Duo) Recorded 1966-69

These performances are polished, yet the many solo contributions from each of the players emerge with a strong personality. The Beaux Arts cellist brings lovely phrasing and a true simplicity of line, so right for Schubert – memorably in the lovely slow movement melody of the Trio No 2 in E flat. In addition to the great piano trios
(B flat, D898, and E flat, D929), the set includes the extremely personable, very early Sonata in B flat, D28, where the lyrical line already has the unmistakable character of its young composer. Also included is the Notturno, D897, a raptly emotive short piece played here with a remarkable depth of feeling that recalls the gentle intensity of the glorious slow movement of the String Quintet. The recording is naturally balanced, although a little dry in the treble. Of the two rarer string trios, also early works, the four-movement Trio, D581, is totally infectious, with that quality of innocence that makes Schubert’s music stand apart. Such persuasive advocacy and vivid recording can’t fail to give the listener great pleasure.

 

Piano Trio in E flat, D929

Florestan Trio

(Hyperion)

This profound, yet still often light-hearted, E flat Trio was written in the same month (November 1827) that Schubert completed Winterreise. We are instantly reminded of this in the Florestan’s eloquent and aptly paced account of the C minor Andante con moto, with what Richard Wigmore describes as its ‘stoical trudging gait’. Its essential melancholy is gently caught, first by the cellist, Richard Lester, and then equally touchingly by the pianist, Susan Tomes. The dramatically rhythmic opening of the first movement could almost be by Beet-hoven but once again these players show themselves to be completely within the Schubertian sensibility and catch perfectly the atmosphere of the more important lyrical motif, first heard on the cello (in bars 15 and 16), which is to dominate the movement alongside the engaging repeated-note figure (so delicately articulated by the piano).

They set a winningly jaunty mood for the finale, which is maintained whenever the main theme reappears, even though, as always with late Schubert, much happens to vary the music’s mood and atmosphere. Another superb performance then from the Florestans, penetrating, yet full of spirited spontaneity, and in spite of the moments of sadness, much Schubertian bonhomie. The recording is completely lifelike and very well balanced.

 

Arpeggione Sonata

Steven Isserlis vc Dénes Várjon pf

(Hyperion)

Their Schubert Arpeggione is thoughtful and full of details that so often pass by unnoticed. Isserlis talks in the notes of the work’s ‘immense, if understated, sadness’ and that is beautifully brought to life here, from the aching introduction onwards. The cellist and pianist of Trio Dali impressed me in this work a while back, similarly yearning yet also capturing the sonata’s moments of geniality. The slow movement on this new account perfectly balances rapture, simplicity and beauty, the dynamic shadings used to potent effect. The finale, too, is not simply the consoling affair it can be, but full of poignant asides.

As a bonus we get two song transcriptions in Isserlis’s own arrangements; Chopin’s Op 74 No 13 conjures a mood of great tragedy within its brief span, while Schubert’s ‘Nacht und Träume’ has a beseeching quality that is simply irresistible. Hyperion’s engineers have given the two players a fine recording, detailed and immediate.

 

Violin Sonata in A. Fantasie in C. Rondo brillant in B minor

Isabelle Faust vn Alexander Melnikov pf

(Harmonia Mundi)

In nearly every respect this is outstanding. The Rondo brillant and the Fantasie, both written for the virtuoso duo of Karl von Bocklet and Josef Slawik, can sound as if Schubert were striving for a brilliant, flashy style, foreign to his nature. Both are in places uncomfortable to play (when first published, the Fantasie’s violin part was simplified), but you would never guess this from Faust’s and Melnikov’s performance; they both nonchalantly toss off any problem passages as though child’s play.

The Fantasie’s finale and the Rondo brillant are irresistibly lively and spirited, and this duo’s technical finesse extends to more poetic episodes – Melnikov’s tremolo at the start of the Fantasieshimmers delicately, while the filigree passagework in the last of the variations that form the Fantasie’s centrepiece have a delightful poise and sense of ease.

The Sonata’s more intimate style is captured just as convincingly; in all three performances Faust and Melnikov observe Schubert’s often very detailed, careful expression marks, not as a matter of duty but as a stimulus to the imagination, as a way of entering more deeply into the music.

The one slight reservation concerns Isabelle Faust’s manner of expression. She makes the most of any passionate phrases and is equally convincing at cool, mysterious or dreamlike moments. But the lyrical phrases in the Rondo’s introduction surely demand a more heartfelt utterance. In the Sonata, too, there are places where one longs for more warmth. This quibble aside, it’s a lovely disc, one to listen to over and over again.

Piano Duets

Paul Lewis, Steven Osborne pf

(Hyperion)

Schubert, Hyperion’s high production standards, two star pianists, Potton Hall for the venue, Simon Eadon and Andrew Keener at the desk: it’s a line-up that on paper, at least, makes this release self-recommending. Listening to the result proves it to be so.

Though Paul Lewis and Steven Osborne may not immediately appear stylistically empathetic artists, let us not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments. In this repertoire they are as one, touch and tone indistinguishable from one another, playing with a delicious fluency and obvious affection. They open with the Allegro in A minor in a finely graded and characterised reading. To conclude, there is the great F minor Fantasie in which the incomparable opening is lent a hint of optimism, even jauntiness, before the subsequent journey to a pathetic conclusion.

The one complaint is that the central part of this generous programme is a sequence in similar tempi and dynamics, pace the plaintive theme of the Andantino varié, a work rarely played more disarmingly than here. There is rather too much evenly paced quaver passagework at mezzo-forte (even in the little E minor Fugue) for rather too long a stretch. But no – by any standards – this is a Schubert disc to return to and live with.

 

Fantasie in F minor for piano duet, D940

Murray Perahia, Radu Lupu pf

(Sony)

How lucky we are that the two greatest pianists of their generation, Murray Perahia and Radu Lupu, are firm friends and that they have collaborated in recording two pieces that are arguably the most successful examples of their respective genres (the Schubert is for piano duet; the Mozart for two pianos). Whether it is in the perfectly crafted busy activity of the Allegro con spirito first movement of the Mozart or the introspective and soulful depth of the Schubert, the players find a unanimity of vision. One is not so much conscious of dialogue-like interplay, but more of them blending to play as one instrument.
The fine CBS recording has entirely captured the subtle inflections of detail, especially in the artists' irreproachable balance. Taken from a live performance at The Maltings, matters of ensemble, which usually defeat the Mozart Sonata, are judged to perfection. After the double bar of the slow movement Lupu and Perahia become lost in each other's thoughts and the effect is overwhelmingly beautiful.
I hardly dare to quibble about a point, but I feel the Largo section in the Schubert is a trifle slow; what works in live performance does not necessarily sound convincing on record. But it is wonderful to hear both the primo and the secondo parts shaped with such care. The fugato and development sections are neither hard-driven nor thick-textured, though clarity is never out of balance with artistic inspiration.

Piano Sonatas – Nos 18 and 21. Four Impromptus

Sir András Schiff pf

(ECM New Series)

This is something special and I urge everyone interested in the discography of Schubert’s piano music to hear it. Unsure about the old instrument? Could it really be adequate to encompass the sonorities and range of expression in this wide selection of works, including two of Schubert’s greatest sonatas? I would say, do not hold back.

Schiff himself says he was a slow convert, from the times some 30 years ago when people took up embattled positions about ‘authenticity’, for and against, and arrogance and dogma prevailed. ‘Are you one of us?’ as Mrs Thatcher might have enquired. Schiff, on the outside looking in, saw that many of the instruments then were not in prime condition and he kept a beady eye too on the practitioners, who were often not awfully good.

But curiosity kept him interested and the joy he has always taken in playing on wonderful instruments, whatever their provenance and pedigree, with each of them individual in character, sustained him. He believes, I am sure, that there is the closest connection between an instrument and the music written for it; and while he does not deny himself the pleasure of playing Schubert on the modern piano, he counts it as important to retain the illumination and inspiration that are to be gained from the Viennese fortepiano of Schubert’s day.

There were more than a hundred makers in the city and the instrument here, from around 1820, is by Franz Brodmann, brother of the better known Joseph whose apprentice Ignaz Bösendorfer took over the firm in 1828. It came into the possession of the Austro-Hungarian imperial family, and the last Austrian emperor and Hungarian king took it with him when he was exiled to Switzerland after the First World War. Its restoration in 1965 was carefully done and András Schiff acquired it in 2010; since then its home has been the Beethoven Haus in Bonn, on loan, where this fine recording was made a year ago. Whenever he plays Schubert, he says, its sweet tone and its sound in a small hall will always remain in the back of his mind.

Its basic speaking tone is piano and of course it cannot match a modern instrument in strength and brilliance. Yet its dynamic range is wide and when the ‘moderator’ pedal is in action – there are four pedals in all – the softest ppp passages, which are not rare in Schubert, can be realised as a nuance distinct from the pianissimos produced by the soft pedal. In the other direction it is capable of a degree beyond fortissimo as well, and at all dynamic levels the sound carries, with a tender mellowness of timbre as the norm. Concert-goers found that, with a master pianist, it easily inhabited the space of the Wigmore Hall, where Schiff gave acclaimed recitals on it at the beginning of this year. If you’re quick you may be able to catch him in Oxford in August.

As we heard in his earlier recording for ECM of the Beethoven Diabelli Variations and the last set of Bagatelles (12/13), this Brodmann is no shrinking violet. It encompasses Schubert’s mighty climaxes and dramatic eruptions as well as those passages of inwardness and quietude when this composer touches us ‘like nobody else’. The point to be stressed is that nothing is lacking: instrument and music are one, ideally matched, convincing us that the one couldn’t have been written the way it is without the other. Try the exquisite Allegretto in C minor, D915, once memorably recorded by Schnabel, for a vivid sample of the world of sound that the Brodmann opens up (disc 2, tr 1); or the first-movement exposition of the B flat major Sonata, D960, for a picture of how it matches the ambition of Schubert’s writing on the broadest scale (disc 2, tr 6).

Let us not forget the messenger! I have long counted András Schiff as one of those artists able to surprise as well as delight – only the best do that. In his favoured repertories of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert (and his Haydn, Schumann and Bartók must not be overlooked), he has shown a continual deepening of response together with many new insights, and he has kept his music-making fresh. What we have here, which is hugely welcome, has come about through work done following a realisation that his former knowledge of historical keyboard instruments had been perfunctory. I cannot think of anyone of his calibre who has mastered the fortepiano as well as the modern piano and shown such distinction on both. In Schubert he has a claim to be considered sovereign among today’s players, carrying forward the reading and interpretation of him into areas that others have not fully explored. I would not be without the recent achievements of Mitsuko Uchida, Imogen Cooper, Paul Lewis and others; nor of course of Alfred Brendel. Schiff is, perhaps, Brendel’s successor.

I like above all the way he conveys Schubert’s wonderful instinct for the sound of the instrument. This side of the composer has not perhaps been celebrated as well as it might. These days we do better at understanding how dramatic the sonatas are and the part that dark forces play in them. Certainly we underestimate Schubert if we regard him as a permanent lyricist. And I don’t believe his sonatas are bounded by the poetic melancholy and air of resignation that some players give us to excess. It’s astounding that he developed a range of piano sound in the way he did, given that he was not a virtuoso player and didn’t even own an instrument for periods of his life. This was born, surely, out of deep love for the piano of his time such as this lovely example, with its transparency as well as fullness of sound, the distinct characters of its registers – treble, middle and bass, not homogenised – and its capacity to place the elements of melody and harmony in new relationships of colour and balance. What a lot he added to piano writing. Savour and enjoy it here.

Piano Sonatas – E, D157; G, D894. Die schöne Müllerin – Der Müller und der Bach (arr Liszt, S565)

Arcadi Volodos pf

(Sony)

Here is irrefutable proof of Arcadi Volodos’s genius and versatility. Naturally, lovers of long-cherished recordings by Schubertians of the stature of Schnabel, Kempff, Pollini and Brendel will hesitate, equating Volodos’s sheen and perfection with an external glory rather than an interior poetic truth. But such witnesses for the prosecution will find themselves silenced by an empathy with Schubert’s spirit so total that it would be extraordinary in a pianist of any age, let alone one still in his twenties.

The jubilant burst of scales and arpeggios that launches the E major Sonata, D157, is given with a deftness and unforced eloquence that are pure Volodos, while the Andante’s sighing chromaticism and surprise modulations have a tonal translucence that will make lesser mortals weep with envy. But it’s in the G major Sonata, D894, that epitome of Schubertian lyricism, that Volodos erases all possible doubts. His opening has an unforgettable stillness and mystery, his velvet-tipped sonority and seamless legato a reminder that Schubert’s vocal and instrumental inspiration were for the most part one and the same. For Volodos and for his listeners this is a true dance of the gods. The recordings are as flawless as the playing.

Piano Sonatas Nos 15, 17 & 18. Impromptus. Klavierstücke

Paul Lewis pf

(Harmonia Mundi)

Reviewing can be a frustrating business sometimes: recordings that bode so well on paper but disappoint in reality, or others where fine playing is compromised by the sound quality itself. It’s rarely an entirely joyous experience. But every now and again a recording comes along that makes you want to dance in the street, handing out copies to complete strangers. This is one of those instances, though I will attempt to restrict my enthusiasm to the written word.

Following his Beethoven immersion on record, Paul Lewis returns to Schubert, some of whose sonatas he set down a decade or so ago for Harmonia Mundi (3/02, 5/03), a project left tantalisingly in the air. Well, it was worth the wait: in the intervening time he has developed into arguably the finest Schubert interpreter of his generation (as anyone who has heard him live recently will know, not to mention the remarkable disc of duets released in 2010 with Steven Osborne – Hyperion, 12/10). Undoubtedly his immersion in the three song-cycles has left its mark too: the links between Schubert’s Lieder and his instrumental writing are everywhere apparent.

The Drei Klavierstücke, D946, that end the set are one of many highlights. Published posthumously some 40 years after Schubert’s death, these extraordinary works are as demanding on the performer as any of the late piano sonatas. Lewis combines a haloed sound with a sense of drama and an unerring instinct for pacing. In passages such as the C minor section of No 2, he combines the intellectual acumen of Alfred Brendel with a still more vivid palette. The shadowy opening of No 3 is a miracle of colouring combined with a sure narrative sense, as involving as if it possessed a text as the music grows in turbulence and menace.

Time and again, you marvel at the confidence and sureness of Lewis’s playing, combined with the finesse and musicality that he has always displayed. It’s the kind of playing, in fact, where comparisons cease to matter. But that would be to shirk my reviewerly duty. In the first movement of the D major Sonata, D850, Lewis really brings out the Beethovenian panache of the writing. Few drive through those opening chords with quite as much conviction: neither the less immediately recorded Richard Goode nor Mitsuko Uchida (compelling though they are), although Leif Ove Andsnes is close in this respect.

But balancing that is the sheer variety of nuance in Lewis’s quiet playing, not least in the slow movement, with its restrained rhetoric here brought out by a perfectly judged tempo. The finale has that tricky balance of sufficient momentum, humour and also a sense of wonder. Uchida is strikingly dreamy here but less unerring as a travel companion. Brendel, on the other hand, reminds us above all that wit is an essential ingredient in this movement.

Schubert of course famously struggled with the sonata, as the many torsos littered along the way attest. But, as so often, particularly when we’re talking Schubert or Bruckner, their unfinished works speak volumes more than the completed opuses of many lesser figures. In the case of the C major Sonata, D840 (dubbed ‘Reliquie’ by an early editor in the mistaken assumption that it was Schubert’s last sonata), he completed two of a projected four movements. In Lewis’s hands the symphonic range of thinking is raptly caught, as is the ambiguity and changeability of mood, together with the twisting shifts of key: how very un-C major this piece is.

The late G major Sonata, D894 (written in late 1826, only months after that other extraordinary G major work, the last string quartet) is equally impressive. Less daringly slow in the Andante than Arcadi Volodos (though the Russian, perhaps more than any other pianist of today, has the range of tone colour to back this up), Lewis is particularly impressive in the driving third movement, which contrasts so vividly with the hushed Trio section; it’s playing that is reminiscent of Sviatoslav Richter’s way with Schubert, though without his penchant for sometimes questionable tempi. And Lewis’s wispy ending of the sonata is magical.

When it comes to the first set of Impromptus, D899, you’re not going to prise Edwin Fischer’s or Krystian Zimerman’s versions out of my hand, but Lewis’s is absolutely up there with them. The G flat Impromptu is simply ravishing. Oh, and the recording itself is unobtrusively fine too.

‘Schubert Live, Vol 1’

Piano Sonatas – A minor, D845; D, D850; No 20, D959. 11 Ecossaises, D781. Drei Klavierstücke, D946

Imogen Cooper pf

(Avie) Recorded live 2008

These performances were recorded live at a Queen Elizabeth Hall recital. Free from the confines of the studio, Cooper rises to the occasion with performances that show a courageous advance on her already distinguished work.

This is true, most strikingly, in the great penultimate A major Sonata, D959. The catalogue may be filled to the brim with oustanding discs of this epic work (Schnabel, Kempff, Brendel, Kovacevich, Lupu and Paul Lewis, to name but six) yet few more deeply charged or felt performances now exist on record. Everything is weighted with greater drama and significance than before. Cooper wrings every expressive ounce from the massive opening Allegro and the result is movingly personal rather than overbearing or idiosyncratic. Time and again she makes you sense the dark undertow beneath Schubert’s outward geniality, the pain as well as the fullness of his tragically brief life. Here, the dramatic and poetic parameters are stretched close to the edge, and in the second movement Cooper’s numbingly slow and intense view of Schubert’s Andantino makes you feel as if the protagonist from Winterreise had returned to haunt you with his world-weary despair.

Elsewhere nothing is taken for granted and every musical shadow, whether passing or engulfing, is acutely registered, whether in the magical close to Variation 3 in D845, the subtle inflections of a true artist in the following flow of ideas and the fluency and tonal finesse in the windswept finale. Her desire to avoid an undue or cloying romanticism sees her moving swiftly through the con motoof the D major Sonata.

Always you sense how the influences of her fellow musicians, of Brendel and Holzmair in particular, have now been subsumed into a vision entirely her own. Finely recorded.

Piano Sonatas – Nos 17, 20 and 21. Moments Musicaux. March in E major

Artur Schnabel pf

(EMI/Warner Classics)

In the 1920s and 1930s, Artur Schnabel, and that too little known pianist Eduard Erdmann more or less single-handedly staged a revival of interest in Schubert's late piano sonatas. Alfred Brendel has recalled how Schnabel was perhaps the first pianist to give the A major Sonata, D959 its due, adding: ''Even today, his 1937 recording transmits the freshness of an exhilarating discovery''. Today, of course, we have a lengthening list of fine modern performances—from Brendel himself (Philips,2/89) as well as from such masters as Serkin (CBS, 10/90), Perahia (CBS, 8/88) and Pollini (DG, 4/88). The pioneering 1937 recording none the less retains a good deal of its old freshness and authority despite some occasionally fallible execution.

In a way, we are more in need, even now, of a proselytising approach to the D major Sonata, D850. Schnabel's performance is predictably fine in the long slow movement but there are exaggerations elsewhere, not least his mannered way with the rhythms of the Scherzo.

By contrast, the Moments musicaux are treated with real intimacy and masterly insight – what, in a slightly different context, SP once called playing that is 'un-charming but touched deeply with tenderness and passion'. As for Schnabel's classic 1939 recording of Schubert's last piano sonata, that in B flat D960, this has long been regarded as one of the Great Recordings of the Century. It is doubtful whether Schnabel ever played better than this on record or whether the interpretation has been surpassed in its comprehensive grasp of the issues that lie at the heart of this music. The recording is generally very good for its day.

These excellent transfers were originally made for the two Schnabel Schubert box-sets issued by EMI in 1983–84 (5/83 and 2/84). Schnabel's account of D960 is a necessary acquisition for any representative collection of piano music on record.

Piano Sonatas (complete)

Wilhelm Kempff pf

(DG)

Schubert’s piano sonatas remained uncharted territory for an embarrassingly long time. Rachmaninov did not know of their existence, and their unique character and vision was usually obscured by lazy assumptions and cliches (their lack of conventional form, their ‘heavenly length’, their touching Viennese lightness and lyricism). Since those dark times a wealth of great pianists have come forward to give them their due, led by such pioneering spirits as Schnabel, Edward Erdmann and Kempff. Of these, Kempff holds a unique place and DG’s immaculate reissue of virtually all the sonatas is worth its weight in gold. No other pianist has communicated Schubert with a greater sense of his final transcendence of earthly pain and travail. For Kempff the sonatas are an exploration of ‘the immeasurable depths of Schubert’s soul, offering nothing for the out and out virtuoso and everything for those who find solace in music freed from all material concerns’. These words are revealing and characteristic of a blessedly controversial genius whose play of light and shade and poetic charisma colour every page, whether freely experimental or ideally structured.

For some his otherworldliness makes him insufficiently bold or confrontational in, say, the elemental uproar at the heart of the Andantino from the A major Sonata. Again, there are those for whom Kempff’s tempo and manner in the Scherzo from the same sonata are tricky, even salonish, and for whom his understatement at the start of the G major Sonata, D894, or his subduing of the storms in the early A minor Sonata, D537, are unconvincing alternatives to more obviously eloquent and robust performances. He is far less trenchant or speculative than, say, Gilels in the D major Sonata, D850, and yet invariably his range of colour and nuance erase even a lingering sense of Gemutlichkeit, of great music played down to domestic proportions.

The first movement of the B flat Sonata is surely among the most subtle and haunting of all Schubert interpretations, the sing-a-song-of-sixpence finale of the D major Sonata a marvel of teasing wit and inwardness. Also, the writer who found the A major Sonata, D664, ‘full of the smiling lights and colours of a spring day’ must surely have heard Kempff play. Even as you long, overall, for a higher degree of drama and intensity, you are simultaneously made aware of a pianist who brought an Apollonian grace to even the fiercest Dionysian pages of Beethoven and who, arguably, found his truest voice in Schubert.

Kempff’s tonal sheen and translucence, his magical elixir, remain unique in the history of piano playing. You may feel that Edith Vogel’s claim that ‘Schubert is like Beethoven in heaven’ is a trifle one-sided, but her view is certainly confirmed by Wilhelm Kempff.

Fantasy in C, ‘Wandererfantasie’, D760

Maurizio Pollini pf

(DG)

The cover shows Caspar David Friedrich’s familiar The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. Pollini, on the other hand, is a wanderer in a transparent ether of crystalline light, and both these legendary performances, recorded in 1973 and beautifully remastered, are of a transcendental vision and integrity. In the Schubert his magisterial, resolutely un‑virtuoso approach allows everything its time and place. Listen to his flawlessly graded ppp approach to the central Adagio, to his rock-steady octaves at 5’23” (where Schubert’s merciless demand is so often the cause of confusion) or to the way the decorations in the Adagio are spun off with such rare finesse, and you may well wonder when you’ve heard playing of such an unadorned, unalloyed glory.

Pollini’s Schumann is no less memorable. Doubting Thomases on the alert for alternating touches of imperiousness and sobriety will be disappointed, for, again, Pollini’s poise is unfaltering. The opening Moderato is sempre energico indeed, its central Etwas langsamer so sensitively and precisely gauged that all possible criticism is silenced. The coda of the central march (that locus classicus of the wrong note) is immaculate and in what someone once called the finale’s ‘shifting sunset vapour’ Pollini takes us gently but firmly to the shores of Elysium. Here is a disc that should grace every musician’s shelf.

Impromptus – D899; D935. Drei Klavierstücke. Allegretto in C minor

Maria João Pires pf

(DG)

This is something very special. Pires’s characteristic impassioned absorption in all she plays – that concentration which makes the listener appear to be eavesdropping on secrets shared between friends – could hardly find a truer soulmate than Schubert. Each Impromptu has a rare sense of in-teg-rity and entirety, born of acute observation and long-pondered responses.

Pires’s instinct for tempo and pacing brings a sense of constant restraint, a true molto moderato to the Allegro of the C minor work from D899, created by a fusion of right-hand tenuto here with momentary left-hand rubato there. Then there’s the clarity of contour within the most subtly graded undertones of the G flat major of D899 which recreates it as a seemingly endless song. Or an Andante just slow, just nonchalant enough for the Rosamunde theme of the D935 B flat major to give each variation space and breath enough to sing out its own sharply defined character.

The Allegretto, D915, acts as a Pause between the two discs, a resting place, as it were, for reflection and inner assessment on this long journey. Its end – which could as well be its beginning – is in the Drei Klavierstücke, D946, of 1828. The first draws back from the fiery impetuousness within the Allegro assai’s tautly controlled rhythms to an inner world with its own time scale; the second, more transpired than played, has an almost unbearable poign-ancy of simplicity. The paradox of these unself-regarding performances is how unmistakably they speak and sing out Pires and her unique musicianship. To draw comparisons here would be not so much odious as to miss the point.

Piano Sonatas D959 and D960

Krystian Zimerman pf

(DG)

It has been a long, long time since Krystian Zimerman’s last solo recording. Think back to his Gramophone Award-winning Debussy Préludes in 1994. Yes, that long. So he’s up there with Sokolov in terms of rarity value. It is, he reveals in the booklet interview, all to do with approaching 60 (which he celebrated in December 2016, 11 months after this disc was recorded) and feeling that ‘it was time to find the courage’ for such works as the late Schuberts and late Beethovens, works that he has been playing for years. (By chance I heard him play these two sonatas live in the Royal Festival Hall last spring, when he stepped in at a moment’s notice after Mitsuko Uchida had had to withdraw. That’s what I call luxury casting.)

Courage? If only certain other artists could be so forbearing. You’ll notice there are no comparisons listed. That’s because this is one of those rare instances where they are not needed, do not illuminate the argument. Zimerman, quite simply, sounds like no one else. That’s partly down to the instrument, having inserted into his Steinway a keyboard he has made himself. Yes, you did read that correctly: for if there’s one thing that Zimerman is, it’s obsessive about the detail. So this keyboard is intended to be better able to sustain a cantabile line (this is done by having the hammer strike a different part of the string, if you want to get technical); it also has a wondrous clarity in the bass and is intentionally lighter-actioned, to avoid what the pianist describes as ‘the many repeated notes in Schubert … turning into Prokofiev’. Add to that the recording, made in the Performing Arts Centre in Kashiwazaki, a hall rebuilt after the earthquake of 2007, and you have the ideal circumstances for some very courageous Schubert.

Every element of these two sonatas has been thought out, considered; in the hands of a lesser artist the results could have been pernickety but instead they tend towards the transcendent. Take the second movement of the A major Sonata, D959. Just listen to the accompaniment, the way that the minutest of shifts in terms of touch recolours it. And then there are the gradations of colour, of dynamic. Nothing is ever fixed, but living, breathing. The movement’s extraordinary ‘nervous breakdown’ (as Uchida calls it) begins almost beguilingly, beautifully. He is much more controlled than some in the cataclysmic chords – passionate, yes, but less overtly desperate; some may not agree with this, but within the context of his reading of the movement, it works. As Zimerman leads back to the opening material, the sense of the initial music being scarred by what has happened is searing.

Time and again, Zimerman flouts received wisdom – his opening movement to D960 (of course with the repeat) sets off at a flowing pace but there’s plenty of time for the unexpected. Again, some might want a more simply flowing account but Zimerman holds you in thrall, suspends reality just as surely as Richter did (though in utterly different ways). He does the same thing in the slow movement: the first 30 seconds draw you into a world of such detail it’s as if you’ve never heard the piece before. And yet – and this is the miraculous bit – there’s no sense of that detail winning over long-term thinking (which can happen in Zimerman’s concerto performances). The instrument comes into its own where the music builds to climaxes without ever losing clarity in the bass.

The Scherzo of D960 is fascinating – it’s elfin, yes, but rather than mere playfulness there’s a gentleness to it. And rather than emphasising the contrasts of the Trio, Zimerman instead draws parallels between it and the Scherzo. The perfection with which he weights the closing chords is another heart-stopping moment. In the finale, there’s again so much that is inimitable: the opening octave is brusque in attack and yet not snatched, while the rhapsody of the playing is staggeringly beguiling, as is the interplay between silence and sound. It is a journey of great intensity.

Enough words from me: the playing speaks for itself. This is a marvellously life‑enhancing release. Go and hear it for yourself.

Mass No 6

Susan Gritton sop Pamela Helen Stephen mez James Gilchrist, Mark Padmore tens Matthew Rose bar Collegium Musicum 90 / Richard Hickox

(Chandos Chaconne)

Long the Cinderella work of Schubert’s miraculous final year, the E flat Mass is now acknowledged as a powerful masterpiece that mingles liturgical grandeur with the composer’s own subjective Romanticism. The apocalyptic Sanctus, with its daring harmonic shifts and heaven-storming crescendos, is a musical counterpart to Turner’s molten canvases, while the Agnus Dei has a violent, contorted anguish unmatched in a setting of this text. The least personal, and most problematic, sections of the Mass are the monumental set-piece fugues at the end of the Gloria and Credo, where Schubert ostentatiously displays his contrapuntal credentials, probably with an eye on an official church appointment.

Hickox chooses broad tempi, balancing dignity and vitality, and building thrillingly to the climaxes. In the Kyrie, at a mobile tempo, he combines gravitas with a Schubertian lyrical ease. You hear how this heavenly music should sound, with the three soloists (Mark Padmore, James Gilchrist – an ideally matched tenor pairing – and soprano Susan Gritton) singing with pure tone and wondering tenderness. Hickox scores over most rivals with his extra choral firepower at climaxes and the wonderfully pungent sonorities of Collegium Musicum 90, whether in the dry, fearful rattle of period timpani in the Credo, the lovely ‘woody’ oboe and clarinet in the ‘Et incarnatus est’ or the steely, scything trumpets in the Agnus Dei.

Part-songs

Birgit Remmert contr Werner Güra ten Philip Mayers pf Scharoun Ensemble; RIAS Chamber Choir, Berlin / Marcus Creed

(Harmonia Mundi)

Most of the part-songs here evoke some aspect of night, whether benevolent, romantic, transfigured or sinister. Between them they give a fair conspectus of Schubert’s achievement in the part-song genre, ranging from the mellifluous, Biedermeier Die Nacht, forerunner of many a Victorian glee, and the gently sensuous Gondel-fahrer to the eerie, harmonically visionary Grab und Mondand the brooding Gesang der Geister über den Wassern. Other highlights here include the alfresco Nachtgesang, with its quartet of echoing horns, Ständchen, a delicious nocturnal serenade, the austere, bardic Scott setting Coronach and the serenely luminous Nachthelle.

The RIAS Chamber Choir confirms its credentials as one of Europe’s finest, most virtuoso ensembles. It sings with rounded, homogeneous tone, well-nigh perfect intonation and an excitingly wide dynamic range. Characterisation tends to be very vivid, whether in the ecstatic central climax in Nachthelle, sharp contrasts in Gesang der Geister über den Wassern or the great sense of awe – and palpable feeling for Schubert’s strange modulations – in Grab und Mond.

Birgit Remmert, the alto soloist in Ständchen (sung, incidentally, in the version with women’s voices), sings well enough but with insufficient lightness and sense of fun. But Werner Güra negotiates what one of Schubert’s friends called ‘the damnably high’ tenor solo in Nachthelle gracefully and with no sense of strain. Philip Mayers is a serviceable rather than specially imaginative pianist, though the delicate, silvery treble of the early 19th-century instrument is enchantingly heard in Psalm 23. The recorded sound is clear and warm, with a well-judged vocal-instrumental balance.

Lieder

Benjamin Appl bar Graham Johnson pf

(Wigmore Hall Live)

Just a couple of months ago, Richard Fairman welcomed Benjamin Appl’s first fully fledged recital disc, a collection of Heine settings on Champs Hill Records, and hailed the young German baritone as ‘the current front-runner in the generation of Lieder singers’. This Wigmore Hall recital serves emphatically to underline that point, and, with Graham Johnson as a supportive and inspiring partner at the piano, it sees Appl in even more natural-sounding and impressive form.

His instinctive feel for these songs is immediately striking and manifests itself in the sort of artlessness that distinguishes the finest Lieder singers: a lack of tension, an easy relationship with the poetry, a confidence in the words and Schubert’s melodies to communicate with nothing but the gentlest helping interpretative hand. The voice, which occasionally felt pushed and ‘manufactured’ on the earlier disc, is here a great deal more relaxed. Appl’s is a light, honey-coloured baritone with a welcome hint of woodiness, and he deploys it with great sensitivity, not least in an expressive trick – favoured by Christian Gerhaher – of being able to withhold and gently apply vibrato at will. Occasionally one fears for the voice’s general robustness, and he starts to sound a little tired in ‘An den Tod’, but at its best it’s a wonderfully expressive and seductive instrument.

What distinguishes this recital, however, is the interpretations themselves, bringing freshness to familiar numbers and making a persuasive case for those that are heard less often. We start with a touchingly tender and chaste account of ‘Der Bach im Frühling’, after which Johnson’s accompaniment to ‘Der Wanderer an den Mond’ is a marvel of peacock-like prancing. The pianist gives a delicious bounce to ‘Fischerweise’ and has an unexpected, almost spiky way with the introduction to ‘Gruppe aus dem Tartarus’. Throughout there’s a pleasing sense of contrast between the Johnson’s sharply drawn contributions and Appl’s serene vocalism and gentle musicality (listen to the way he colours the phrase ‘Schwester Seele’ in ‘Verklärung’, around 1'20", for an example). Other highlights include a genuinely unnerving ‘Der Zwerg’ at the centre of the programme (one of few numbers followed by applause), and a delightful ‘Die Taubenpost’ to close – a disarming conclusion to an outstanding recital, and a beautifully recorded one too.

‘Heliopolis – Lieder, Vol 4’

Matthias Goerne bar Ingo Metzmacher pf

(Harmonia Mundi)

The Schubert shelves bend and groan and are full to overflowing, but they’ll have to find room for one more. This is a simply unmissable recital, for two prime reasons – the grave beauty of its programme and the corresponding beauty of the singer’s voice. Here’s an artist who clearly takes his art very seriously and marries it to a loveliness of even-voiced tone and a sensitivity of response to all that he has to sing.

The selection and collocation of songs are wonderfully made so as to define a particular frame of mind and sustain and develop it. The haunting Schiller setting ‘Die Götter Griechenlands’, with its ghostly evocation of the Rosamunde Quartet, is seminal. Throughout the recital, an occasional harmony or melodic sequence recalls it to mind, and the horns of ‘Griechenland’ are heard faintly blowing in the last song of all, the Mayrhofer ‘Abschied’. These are ernste Gesänge, every one of them, yet there is nothing meanly austere or ponderously sententious. These songs of yearning, essentially spiritual, are very personal, and the imagination never shuts down. The pianist, Ingo Metzmacher, is fully responsive to this, and the recorded sound, of both voice and piano, is warm and vivid.

Lieder

Ian Bostridge ten Julius Drake pf

(Warner Classics)

Bostridge’s gift for finding the right manner for each song is exemplified in the contrast between the easy simplicity he brings to such apparently artless pieces as ‘Fischerweise’, ‘Frühlingsglaube’ and the less familiar ‘Im Haine’ (this a wondrous performance of a song that’s the very epitome of Schubert the melodist), and the depth of feeling found in ‘Erster Verlust’ (a properly intense reading), ‘Nacht und Traüme’, ‘Wandrers Nachtlied’ I and II, ‘Du bist die Ruh’ (so elevated in tone and style) and ‘Litanei’.

Bostridge also characterises spine-chillingly the intense, immediate drama of ‘Erlkönig’ and ‘Der Zwerg’, though here some may prefer the weight of a baritone. In the latter piece Drake is particularly successful at bringing out the originality of the piano part; and in a much simpler song, ‘An Sylvia’, he gives to the accompaniment a specific lift and lilt that usually goes unheard. In these songs, as in everything else, the ear responds eagerly to the tenor’s fresh, silvery tone and his ever-eager response to words. The recording and notes are faultless.

Nachtviolen’

Christian Gerhaher bar Gerold Huber pf

(Sony)

With few exceptions, Christian Gerhaher ventures well off the beaten track in this superlative recital centring on the echt Schubertian themes of wandering, evanescence, night and lost or unattainable love. In his classic study of Schubert’s songs (Duckworth: 1928), Richard Capell wrote of the rare ‘An den Mond in einer Herbstnacht’, somewhere between a Lied and an operatic scena, that it ‘would reward an uncommon singer possessing art enough to maintain the interest for all of its length’. I suspect Capell would have given the nod to Gerhaher, in close partnership with the sentient Gerold Huber. With his lyric high baritone at its freest, Gerhaher has the uncommon gift of making everything alive, specific, while always sounding natural. Each shift of perspective in ‘An den Mond in einer Herbstnacht’ – say, the sudden stab of fear at the vulture gnawing the soul, or the lightening of gait and spirit at the memory of boyhood – is vividly caught. Yet the abiding impression, here and throughout this recital, is of spontaneous directness, tempered by a certain restraint.

In the Gothic ballad ‘Der Zwerg’ Gerhaher eschews grotesquerie, making his effects by understatement and the plangency of his perfectly controlled pianissimo singing. The song emerges less as melodrama than as a mysterious human tragedy. ‘Herbst’, that bleak late masterpiece, is likewise elegiac rather than anguished, with Gerhaher cherishing the sculpted beauty of Schubert’s melodic line. He can be charming, too, as in the lazy barcarolle ‘Der Schiffer’ and the pastoral sway of ‘Abendlied an die Entfernte’, where Huber gives a delightful lift to the 6/8 rhythms.

Several of the little-known early songs here look slender on the page. But with his Schubertian gift of mingled simplicity and vitality, Gerhaher makes something cherishable of the limpid, Mozartian ‘Nach einem Gewitter’ and the Baroque-inspired ‘Hoffnung’. In two settings of the troubled Saxon poet Ernst Schulze, ‘Im Walde’ and ‘Über Wildemann’, Gerhaher catches the anguish and desolation without ever compromising beauty of tone and breadth of line. Gerhaher and Huber end their programme with a real rarity, ‘Der Sänger am Felsen’, a strophic song of rather formal, classical cut. But they vindicate their choice with a performance of gentle eloquence and grace. Each successive verse is freshly, naturally, illuminated, with no conscious point-making. It crowns a superlative recital by a singer who for vocal beauty, poetic insight and expressive immediacy is surely unsurpassed in Lieder today.

Atys. Einsamkeit. Der Fluss. Im Freien. Die Gebüsche. Die Götter Griechenlands. Sehnsucht

Gundula Janowitz sop Irwin Gage pf

(Orfeo) Recorded live 1972

This is an unusual and wholly absorbing recital by a soprano often, mistakenly, considered no more than a singer with a lovely voice. In 1972, at the height of her appreciable powers, Janowitz impressed her Salzburg audience with this, her first recital at the Festival. Her discerning choice comprises some notable songs by Schubert rarely heard in recital and ones by his contemporary Hüttenbrenner, which Janowitz sang from manuscript copies, seldom performed since the composer’s day. These are surely their first recordings.

Has there ever been such a lovely, poised account of the great Schiller-inspired song ‘Die Götter Griechenlands’ or such an ingratiating one of ‘Sehnsucht’, the Mayrhofer setting? The first offering, ‘Im Freien’, has its winning cantilena filled with gloriously sustained, long-breathed tone. The programme ends with ‘Einsamkeit’. This grandly imaginative if slightly impersonal quasi-cantata, to a Mayrhofer text, a composition that Schubert himself thought so highly of, is a kind of a panorama of a life, ending in a wonderfully reposeful final section. Janowitz and her impressive partner perform it with total conviction, sustaining interest throughout.

Although not in Schubert’s class, Hüttenbrenner reveals a talent apparently well able to encompass the meaning of poems in fluent and often imaginative writing. Orfeo provide no texts, let alone translations, but the delightful ‘Spinnerlied’ must be about spinning: it’s an artlessly charming song. ‘Der Hügel’ is obviously about more serious matters and, in its sad course, comes closes to Schubert in depth of feeling. ‘Frühlingsliedchen’ has a simple, spring-like joy to it, and an appealingly varied, strophic form. Janowitz takes the measure of them all, and adds to a gently vibrant tone many tints and touches of half-voice. They could not have a better advocate.

The recording catches the full glow of the singer’s voice. The only drawback, that absence of texts, isn’t serious enough to stop acquiring this issue, given that Janowitz virtually tells you in her utterance what the songs are about.

‘An die Musik’

Bryn Terfel bass-bar Malcolm Martineau pf

(DG)

Terfel’s gift is a generous, individual voice, a natural feeling for German and an inborn ability to go to the heart of what he attempts. His singing here is grand in scale – listen to any of the dramatic songs and the point is made – but like Hotter, whom he so often resembles, he’s able to reduce his large voice to the needs of a sustained, quiet line, as in ‘Meeresstille’. When the two come together as in ‘Der Wanderer’, the effect can be truly electrifying, even more so, perhaps, in ‘Erlkönig’, where the four participants are superbly contrasted. Yet this is a voice that can also smile, as in ‘An die Laute’and ‘Die Taubenpost’, or express wonder, as in ‘Ganymed’, a most exhilarating interpretation, or again explode in sheer anger as in the very first song, the strenuous ‘Gruppe aus dem Tartarus’. Terfel isn’t afraid to employ rubato and vibrato to make his points and above all to take us right into his interpretations rather than leave us admiring them, as it were, from afar. Throughout, Martineau’s at once vigorous and subtle playing is an apt support: his accompaniment in ‘Erlkönig’ is arrestingly clear and precise.

‘Lieder, Vol 26’

Christine Schäfer sop John Mark Ainsley ten Richard Jackson bar London Schubert Chorale; Graham Johnson pf

(Hyperion)

It’s hard to know where to begin in praise of this disc. It has several centres of excellence, the first being Schäfer’s beseeching, urgent account of the Mignon settings from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisterthat make plain her pre-eminence among sopranos in Lieder. Next comes Ainsley’s winningly fresh account of ‘An Silvia’. You may be surprised at how wholly new-minted Ainsley’s ardent tones and Johnson’s elating piano manage to make of such a hackneyed song. Schäfer and Johnson do the same service for ‘Horch, horch! die Lerch’’. Then comes the extraordinary discovery of this volume. As a rule, Johnson has excluded unaccompanied vocal pieces from his project; happily, he has made an exception in the case of the astonishingly original Seidl setting ‘Grab und Mond’, which touches on eternal matters, or rather the permanence of death, a message starkly expressed in typically daring harmony. The London Schubert Chorale gives it a spellbinding interpretation and also contributes positively to a performance of another Seidl setting, the better-known ‘Nachthelle’, where the high-lying tenor lead provides no problems for Ainsley. There have to be reservations over the work of Richard Jackson; his tone is inadequate to the demands of ‘Der Einsame’, the unjustly neglected ‘Totengräberweise’and ‘Der Wanderer an den Mond’,which call for a richer sound-palette. Throughout, Johnson’s playing is a source of pleasure and enlightenment. The recording is well-nigh faultless.

 

‘Lieder, Vol 32’

Lynne Dawson, Patricia Rozario, Christine Schäfer sops Ann Murray, Catherine Wyn-Rogers mezs Paul Agnew, John Mark Ainsley, Philip Langridge, Jamie MacDougall, Daniel Norman,Christoph Prégardien, Michael Schade, Toby Spence tens Simon Keenlyside, Maarten Koningsberger, Stephan Loges, Christopher Maltman, Stephen Varcoe bars Neal Davies, Michael George basses Graham Johnson pf London Schubert Chorale / Stephen Layton

(Hyperion)

The only really famous work here is ‘Der Wanderer’, that archetypal expression of Romantic alienation whose popularity in Schubert’s lifetime was eclipsed only by that of ‘Erlkönig’. Some of the part-songs – Zum Punsche, Naturgenuss and Schlachtgesang – cultivate a vein of Biedermeier heartiness that wears a bit thin today. Nor will Schubert’s consciously archaic tribute to his teacher Salieri have you itching for the repeat button – though, like several other numbers, it shows the 19-year-old composer rivalling Mozart in his gift for musical mimicry. To compensate, though, there are part-songs like the sensual Der Entfernten, with its delicious languid chromaticisms, and the colourful setting of Gott im Ungewitter. The slight but charming setting of ‘Das war ich’ is appealingly done by the light-voiced Daniel Norman, and Ann Murray brings her usual charisma and dramatic conviction to the pathetic Italian scena Didone abbandonata.

Christine Schäfer is equally charismatic in the neglected ‘Die verfehlte Stunde’ (recorded here for the first time), catching perfectly the song’s mingled yearning and ecstasy, and negotiating the mercilessly high tessitura with ease. Other happy discoveries include Schubert’s third setting of ‘Des Mädchens Klage’, with its soaring lines, a melancholy tale of courtly love, sung by Christoph Prégardien with as much drama and variety as the music allows, and the surging ‘Entzückung’ (‘music for an infant Lohengrin’, as Graham Johnson puts it), for which Toby Spence has both the flexibility and the necessary touch of metal in the tone. Doubts were fleetingly raised by Lynne Dawson’s slight tremulousness in ‘Des Mädchens Klage’ and by Christopher Maltman’s prominent vibrato at forte and above in an otherwise involving performance of ‘Der Wanderer’. But, these cavils apart, no complaints about the singing or the vivid accompaniments.

 

‘Lieder, Vol 37’

John Mark Ainsley, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Michael Schade tens David Pyatt hn Graham Johnson pf

(Hyperion)

This disc, the last in Hyperion’s Schubert Edition, is in large part devoted to the per-formance of the non-cycle Schwanengesang, that extraordinary collection in which Schubert seems more original and more inclined even than in earlier Lieder to peer into the future. Johnson has astutely divided the songs between two voices. Ainsley is given the Rellstab settings, Rolfe Johnson the Heine plus Seidl’s ‘Die Taubenpost’, which so poignantly and airily closes the set.

Ainsley interprets his songs with the tonal beauty, fine-grained phrasing and care for words that are the hallmarks of his appreciable art, even if his voice sometimes lacks a difficult-to-define individuality of timbre. The over-exposed ‘Ständchen’ is given a new spontaneity of utterance by both the singer and Graham Johnson. Anthony Rolfe Johnson brings all the appropriate intensity one would expect from him to the tremendous Heine settings. Sometimes his tone hardens when he’s depicting the deserted lover present in so many of these pieces but that’s hardly inappropriate to the depth of feeling being expressed.

Most of the other songs of 1828, which open the recital, are assigned to Schade, who sings them with refined tone and an innate feeling for sharing his enjoyment in performing them, nowhere more so than in the opening ‘Auf dem Strom’. Ainsley reads his sole offering here, ‘Bei dir allein’, with just the fiery passion it calls for.

This is a worthy, often inspired conclusion to the series, once more enhanced by Johnson’s copious notes. It also has a complete index to the Edition. The recording is faultless.

 

Die schöne Müllerin. Nacht und Träume, etc

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau bar Jörg Demus, Gerald Moore pfs

(DG)

You wouldn’t think that a recording by Fischer-Dieskau, given his huge Schubert discography, could still offer an exciting revelation – but that’s what this ‘new’ Die schöne Müllerin recording offered when it was released in 2000. Explanations for its suppression vary. The singer seems to think it has something to do with its technical quality: the booklet-note, slightly more credibly, tells us that it was planned before DG decided to include the cycle in its ‘complete’ Schubert with the baritone and Gerald Moore, which caused this performance to be put on the back burner. Now we can enjoy a reading that’s absolutely spontaneous, daring in its dramatic effects – bold extremes of dynamics, for instance – and full of even more subtle detail than in Fischer-Dieskau’s other recordings.

This approach owes not a little to Demus’s piano. As Alan Newcombe says in his notes: ‘Aided by Demus’s lightly pedalled, often almost brusque staccato articulation, the result is starker, more elemental, less comfortable [than the reading with Moore], conceived on a larger scale.’ To that one should add that the singer is at the absolute height of his powers; tone, line, breath control and intuitive imagination are most remarkable in the strophic songs that, in lesser hands, can seem over-long. Another feature of this is the significant underlining he gives to pertinent words. For instance, in ‘Pause’, note how ‘gehängt’, ‘durchschauert’ and ‘Nachklang’ receive this treatment. It’s this unique vision of the German language in music that still marks out this baritone from his many successors. Immediate, unvarnished sound heightens the value of this extraordinary performance.

Die schöne Müllerin

Werner Güra ten Jan Schultsz pf

(Harmonia Mundi)

An enthralling account of the cycle on virtually every count that seriously challenges the hegemony of the many desirable versions already available. In the first place, Güra must have about the most beautiful voice ever to have recorded the work in the original keys (and that’s not to overlook Wunderlich, a far less perceptive interpreter). Its owner has a technique second to none, able to vary his tone, sing a lovely pianissimo and/or a long-breathed phrase with perfect control. Then no musical or verbal subtlety seems to escape him at any stage of the young man’s disillusioning journey from happiness to misery and death.

The plaintive quality of his voice and its youthful sap are precisely right for conveying the protagonist’s vulnerability and, where needed, his self-pity. ‘Der Neugierige’ encapsulates these virtues, with the final couplet of questioning the brook immaculately done, just as the pp at the close of the previous song is given a curious sense of uncertainty on the boy’s part. The three strophic songs are finely varied: here, as throughout, the use of rubato is natural and inevitable, and the integration of singer and pianist, who’s happily playing a Bechstein, are at their most compelling.

‘Mein’ is properly eager, expectant, ‘Pause’ as plangent as it should be, especially at its end. The frenetic anger of the 14th and 15th songs is as over-heated as it should be, ‘Die liebe Farbe’ rightly hypnotic. In ‘Trockne Blumen’ and ‘Der Müller und der Bach’, both artists go to the heart of the matter, and the final lullaby is soft-grained and consoling. Schultsz’s contributions are sometimes controversial, always challenging. Güra surpasses even the Gramophone Award-winning Bostridge, simply because his voice is under even better control and because his German is more idiomatic. The Harmonia Mundi sound, in spite of some reverberance, catches voice and piano in ideal balance.

Die schöne Müllerin

Ian Bostridge ten Graham Johnson pf with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau narr

(Hyperion)

The 20 songs of Die schöne Müllerin portray a Wordsworthian world of heightened emotion in the pantheistic riverside setting of the miller. The poet, Wilhelm Müller, tells of solitary longings, jealousies, fears and hopes as the river rushes by, driving the mill-wheel and refreshing the natural world. Ian Bostridge and Graham Johnson go to the heart of the matter, the young tenor in his aching tones and naturally affecting interpretation, the pianist in his perceptive, wholly apposite playing. The sum of their joint efforts is a deeply satisfying experience.

Bostridge has the right timbre for the protagonist and a straightforward approach, with an instinctive rightness of phrasing. His peculiarly beseeching voice enshrines the vulnerability, tender feeling and obsessive love of the youthful miller, projecting in turn the young lover’s thwarted passions, self-delusions and, finally, inner tragedy. Nowhere does he stretch beyond the bounds of the possible, everything expressed in eager then doleful tones. Johnson suggests that ‘Ungeduld’ mustn’t be ‘masterful and insistent’ or the youth would have won the girl, so that even in this superficially buoyant song the sense of a sensitive, sad, introverted youth is maintained. The daydreaming strophic songs have the smiling, innocent, intimate sound that suits them to perfection, the angry ones the touch of stronger metal that Bostridge can now add to his silver, the tragic ones, before the neutral ‘Baches Wiegenlied’, an inner intensity that rends the heart as it should. An occasional moment of faulty German accenting matters not at all when the sense of every word is perceived.

As a bonus we have here a recitation of the Prologue and Epilogue and of the Müller poems not set by Schubert: Fischer-Dieskau graces it with his speaking voice. The ideal Hyperion recording catches everything in very present terms. In all musical matters, everything Johnson writes only enhances one’s enjoyment, if that’s the right word, of a soul-searching interpretation.

 

Die schöne Müllerin

James Gilchrist ten Anna Tilbrook pf

(Orchid)

James Gilchrist’s Wanderer has been around a bit. Not enough to make him weary or wary, far from it – a first-kindled enthusiasm only burns itself out a little in the fourth song, ‘Danksagung an den Bach’ – but in place of youthful impetuosity is the anxiety of a man to seize what he can while he can. His jealousy – ‘Eifersucht und Stolz’ – gains thereby a specially manic edge, and leaves him almost shouting at the end of ‘Die Böse Farbe’ before he takes his leave of love and life in both sorrow and anger over the ever-more-painful course of the last triptych.

If that brief account, and the timings, often very quick or slow, suggest exaggeration or melodrama, then they mislead: one was never aware of a word being presented for particular attention, and in some songs Gilchrist can barely get the words out in time, but line and sense never falter.

How aptly Anna Tilbrook’s pedalling poses the question to the brook at the beginning of ‘Die Neugierige’, and how graciously Gilchrist waits until the last verse before slowing down to ask himself. That his mix of chest and head registers tends more towards the latter than is usual may disconcert some but it allows for the most intimate and touching of quarter-voices at the end of his confession to the flowers, ‘Des Müllers Blumen’, and brings uneasy rest indeed to the final lullaby. Gilchrist and Tilbrook offer one of the very finest of modern versions.

Schwanengesang

Matthias Goerne bar Alfred Brendel pf

(Decca) Recorded live 2003

Schwanengesang divides clearly into eight Rellstab and six Heine settings; ‘Herbst’ is here added to the Rellstab group, while the Seidl ‘Die Taubenpost’ is made into the encore of a wonderful recital.

Goerne and Brendel form one of the great Lieder partnerships of the day. The sympathy between them goes beyond skilful ensemble and shared enjoyment of the wealth of illustration in Schubert, into a deep understanding of the poetry as he composed it. It’s no surprise that they should produce powerful performances of the most inward-looking Heine songs – the suffering power of ‘Der Atlas’, the misery from which the harmony allows no escape in ‘Die Stadt’, the terror of ‘Der Doppelgänger’. But the lighter ones are scarcely less affecting. And their mutual understanding completely solves such a difficult song as ‘Kriegers Ahnung’.

The Beethoven cycle moves in a steady progress not into the usual triumphant assertion but into a warmth of belief that song may truly join the parted lovers. This is music-making of genius.

Schwanengesang, etc

Peter Schreier ten András Schiff pf

(Wigmore Hall Live) Recorded live 1991

The 1991 recital by Peter Schreier and András Schiff is highly desirable, though the sound is not quite on the same level. Schreier was never the most honeyed of tenors but in the lighter songs of Schwanengesang he compensates for a touch of reediness and a tendency to harden on high notes with the supple grace of his phrasing and his ultra-keen response to the text. ‘Liebes-botschaft’ is eager and volatile, enhanced by Schiff’s wonderfully limpid touch and his care to make the piano’s singing left hand match the voice in eloquence (Schubert’s original, high, key an advantage, here and elsewhere).

On the downside, ‘Aufenthalt’ is surely too slow and life-weary, weighed down by recurrent submissive rallentandos. But ‘Das Fischermädchen’ has a lilting tenderness, Schiff again singing in dulcet partnership with the voice, while in the remaining Heine songs singer and pianist unflinchingly probe the extremes of anguish and bitterness. ‘Die Stadt’(the swirling, impressionistic arpeggios eerily insubstantial from Schiff) and ‘Der Doppelgänger’ are as desolate and disturbing as any performances on disc, the suggestion of a whine, even a sneer, in Schreier’s timbre extraordinarily apt here.

After this we get a sharply characterised Goethe group that encompasses the bleakness of the three Harper’s Songs (done with characteristic intense immediacy) and ends with an impulsive, dancing ‘Der Musensohn’ that rightly brings the house down.

Schwanengesang, etc

Christoph Prégardien ten Andreas Staier fp

(Challenge Classics)

Planning a CD programme around Schwanengesang is always tricky. The vastly experienced duo of Christoph Prégardien and Andreas Staier here come up with a solution as satisfying as any. They preface the quasi-cycle with the bleak, windswept Rellstab setting ‘Herbst’, which Schubert unaccountably omitted from the Rellstab sequence that opens Schwanengesang. Then, at the end, they follow ‘Die Taubenpost’ – always in danger of jarring after the Weltschmerz of the Heine group – with other, complementary, Seidl settings, ending with the blissful nocturnal homecoming of ‘Im Freien’.

Prégardien’s dulcet tenor, subtly and gracefully deployed, is heard to advantage both in these Seidl songs and in Schwanengesang. Where so many singers seem to ‘think’ the whole collection in the minor key, as it were, Prégardien is eagerly expectant in ‘Liebesbotschaft’ and sings a smiling, seductive ‘Fischermädchen’. His ‘Ständchen’, taken at an easy, mobile tempo, is likewise all caressing charm, while ‘Abschied’ is blithely insouciant, the wistfulness of the final verse lightly touched – and how well the delicate, slightly veiled sonorities of Staier’s fortepiano complement the voice, here and elsewhere.

In the anguished Heine songs Prégardien’s less extreme style than, say, Peter Schreier, is scarcely less moving, whether in the rhythmically incisive ‘Der Atlas’ (where the fortepiano’s percussive resonance brings uncommon clarity to Schubert’s quasi-orchestral textures), or an ‘Am Meer’ of aching tenderness, the final stab of pain all the more affecting for being understated. ‘Die Stadt’, taken at an unusually urgent tempo, emerges in a single grim sweep, with the fortepiano’s sustaining pedal creating a mysterious haze impossible to replicate on a modern grand. Prégardien occasionally adds discreet, graceful embellishments to his lines, especially apt in ‘Ständchen’. While it is absurd to speak of an outright ‘winner’ in such a crowded field, Prégardien and the ever-illuminating Staier join the roster of indispensable Schwanengesang recordings.

Winterreise

Mark Padmore ten Paul Lewis pf

(Harmonia Mundi)

Ah, this journey! How many have made it, sincerely and imaginatively, two setting out as nearly as possible as one! So many on records too, following the elusive track as with torchlight concentrated upon it. Yet, of all, it’s hard to think of one that leads more faithfully to the cold comfort of its end. And when we get there in this performance, what an end it is!

The journey begins with ever such a slight whine high in the voice, as with a calm acceptance of pain. The piano abstains from jabbing sforzandos to underline what the chords make plain enough, instead insisting calmly on its left-hand legato. The melting major-key modulation is all affection: no hint of bitterness in the sentiment that his passing footsteps should not disturb the faithless beloved’s sleep. But outside in the open, stillness and turbulence alternate like the moods of the weather-vane. And so, throughout much of the trek, the self-confiding of the loner holds in check the utterance of emotion as the icy surface of the river conceals the running water beneath. Even so the pain will out, as it does in the last phrase, ‘ihr Bild dahin’, of ‘Erstarrung’.

On we go, lulled and tormented by the magic music-box of ‘Frühlingstraum’, till the tragic chord before ‘so elend nicht’ in ‘Einsamkeit’ brings a dreadful reality into focus. The deceptive sweetness of ‘Die Krähe’, the giddy disorientation of ‘Letzte Hoffnung’, the subdued feverish excitements of ‘Täuschung’ find an almost holy stability in ‘Das Wirtshaus’, but still the external world exists, felt as almost an intrusion in ‘Mut’. And soon we meet the organ-grinder – and his secrets must on no account be revealed by reviewer or arts-gossip. The listener must wait, out of respect to this marvellous partnership of Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis, until time can be taken for it, alone and uninterrupted, to accompany them on the journey through to its unearthly end.

Winterreise

Matthew Rose bass Gary Matthewman pf

(Stone Records)

My spontaneous reaction after hearing Matthew Rose’s trudge across Schubert’s snowbound landscape was ‘He’ll survive’. From the flickering will-o’-the-wisp of ‘Irrlicht’ onwards, most singers convey varying degrees of mental unbalance. Rose’s voluminous teak bass, ideal for operatic kings, fathers and villains (not least his magnificent Claggart in ENO’s Billy Budd), does not naturally encompass vulnerability. In the lavishly produced booklet (which includes a penetrating essay by Susan Youens, wintry paintings by Victoria Crowe and delightful drawings of the recording sessions by Tessa Henderson), he refers to Winterreise, in contrast to Die schöne Müllerin, as ‘an old man’s cycle. It has the universality too, but the depth of voice suits it.’ Rose’s certainly does. Although his German vowels could be tighter (‘Der’ tends to sound like the English ‘dare’), his performance often recalls the Wotanesque stoicism distilled by that great Wagnerian Hans Hotter, in his EMI recording with Gerald Moore.

Over the years a mere handful of true basses, most famously Martti Talvela and Kurt Moll, have recorded Winterreise, none with complete success. For one thing, managing a deep, bulky voice tends to entail slow speeds, with a loss of Schubert’s gehende Bewegung, the walking motion crucial to several of the songs. Not here. Like Hotter before him, Rose can effectively soften and lighten his timbre, while he and his pianist partner Gary Matthewman choose their tempi discerningly. Only ‘Die Krähe’, the traveller’s strange, hallucinatory vision of an encircling crow, is controversially slow. But singer and pianist vindicate their choice with a performance of mesmeric intensity, the voice spinning a trance-like line against the keyboard’s eerily limpid cantabile.

Whatever their chosen keys, parts of Winterreise lie uncomfortably low for many tenors and baritones. Rose can maintain quality and sonority over a wide compass. The rounded depth of his low register, allied to seemingly inexhaustible reserves of breath, are priceless assets in, say, the sombrely confiding ‘Ei Tränen, meine Tränen’ in ‘Gefrorne Tränen’, in the grand, arching lines of ‘Wasserflut’, and in ‘Der greise Kopf’, sung with Lear-like grizzled majesty. With no false histrionics, Rose makes the traveller’s moment of realisation ‘Wie weit noch bist zur Bahre’ – ‘How far it is still to the grave’ – as bleakly terrifying as I have heard.

Rose’s jilted wanderer can encompass a touching pathos, as at the yearning close of ‘Frühlingstraum’ or the heartbreaking major-key section of ‘Der Wegweiser’ (‘Habe ja doch nichts begangen’), where he reflects with bemusement on his undeserved plight. In ‘Im Dorfe’ he contemplates the sleeping villagers with rueful tenderness (‘Je nun, sie haben ihr Teil genossen’). More typically, Rose veers between sombre melancholy, defiant bitterness and a sheer determination to keep going. ‘The central figure is completely broken,’ he observes in the booklet. Yet nowhere is there a whiff of self-pity. In the third verse of the opening ‘Gute Nacht’ Rose erupts in anger, spitting out consonants vehemently before sinking back into sad reverie. The final verse, usually a cue for an elegiac pianissimo, is more sarcastic than nostalgic, the final ‘An dich hab’ ich gedacht’ sung as if through clenched teeth. Similarly, Schubert’s magical turn from minor to major in ‘Auf dem Flusse’, as the wanderer carves the date of their first avowal of love into the ice, provokes a snarl of reproach rather than the aching tenderness suggested by most singers. You can almost see the embittered curl of his upper lip as he speaks of the broken ring entwined around the lovers’ names.

The incisive edge on Rose’s ample tone is splendidly heard in the desperate, fist-shaking bravado of ‘Mut’ and ‘Der stürmische Morgen’. Elsewhere, too, Rose’s wanderer seems to mock the absurdity of his own predicament, as at the final ‘Wein’ (‘weep’) of ‘Letzte Hoffnung’, where other singers, including Fischer-Dieskau, in his various recordings, and Matthias Goerne, with Graham Johnson (Hyperion, 1/98) and Alfred Brendel (Decca, 9/04), find a lamenting quality of tone. At the close of ‘Das Wirtshaus’, where the exhausted wanderer fails to find the consolation of death, he strikes a note of almost heroic defiance. Even the final ‘Der Leiermann’ is forthright rather than haunted, ending with a vehement challenge to himself and the hurdy gurdy man. Like Hans Hotter, Rose leaves one with a sense of a vast burden of suffering determinedly endured against appalling odds, of Lear’s ‘Men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither. Ripeness is all.’

If both singer and pianist tend to underplay Schubert’s frequent accents (say, in the frantic, stumbling ‘Rückblick’), Gary Matthewman counters the dangers of downward transposition by ensuring that Schubert’s transparent, precisely imagined textures remain clear. Bass-lines are always firmly, eloquently etched, crucial when Schubert often thinks in terms of a dialogue between voice and keyboard bass, as in ‘Erstarrung’ and the contrapuntally conceived ‘Der Wegweiser’. While there are more moving Winterreise recordings, not least from Goerne and Fischer-Dieskau, Rose’s deeply felt, impressively sung performance seems to catch, more than most, something of the poet Müller’s mordant, mocking irony which Schubert chose to soften and deflect when he set the verses.

Winterreise

Werner Güra ten Christoph Berner pf

(Harmonia Mundi)

This Winterreise-man is, if not ‘mad’, then seriously ‘disturbed’ or unhinged. He is given to secretive, wild-eyed confidings, to sudden changes of mood (singing softly one moment, desperately loud the next). His enunciation may be deadpan, almost expressionless, or it may stab emphatically – and the pianist will do the same. But after the pause before ‘Die Post’ comes a gradual change: the fever subsides, the voice qualities suggesting a partly self-dramatised wildness are no longer heard, and the desolation of reality becomes a fact to be recognised and accepted. At the point where others grow into madness, Güra’s calm is, in this context, still more terrible.

One says ‘Güra’ but means to include the pianist, Christoph Berner, whose playing is the very enactment of the man, his apprehensions and his setting. Güra himself has probably the most elegantly ingratiating voice of all the present-day Lieder-singing tenors and it has often seemed that he prefers to use it for any purpose rather than elegant ingratiation; but this is certainly a performance to take to heart.

Winterreise

Jonas Kaufmann ten Helmut Deutsch pf

(Sony)

For sheer vocal splendour, Jonas Kaufmann is unrivalled in Winterreise since Jon Vickers, whose controversial 1983 recording is revelatory or grotesque, according to taste. At moments – say, the clinching final phrase of each verse of ‘Wasserflut’ – Kaufmann unleashes a formidable operatic blade of tone. Yet the dominant impression of this deeply considered Winterreise is of gentle, rueful introspection, momentarily flaring up in embittered protest (forte high notes invariably bring a visceral thrill), then drifting into trance-like resignation.

In the booklet-note – fashioned as a conversation between Kaufmann and pianist Helmut Deutsch – the tenor cites the wanderer’s abiding death wish and his incipient insanity. In the closing ‘Der Leiermann’ (which ends with a sudden wail of anguish), he is ‘like a madman talking to the ghost of a dead man.’ (Deutsch ventures to differ on this.) On vocal evidence alone, though, he does not stress the disturbing psychopathology of Winterreise as do fellow tenors Peter Schreier and Ian Bostridge. Kaufmann begins ‘Gute Nacht’ with a chastened delicacy and finds a melting pianissimo, devoid of irony, for the bittersweet final verse. ‘Erstarrung’, taken quite broadly, in response to Schubert’s autograph marking ‘Not too quickly’, is nostalgically reflective rather than urgently impassioned, rising to despair only at the final climax. Here and elsewhere Deutsch’s clear, precise textures, plus the use of Schubert’s original high key, brings dividends in the dialogues between voice and piano bass.

From the hallucinatory, half-whispered ‘Irrlicht’, Kaufmann’s wanderer becomes ever more prone to numb reverie. The haunted ppp colour he finds for the close of ‘Frühlingstraum’ is heart-rending. In ‘Im Dorfe’ he contemplates the sleeping villagers with tenderness rather than derision, and in ‘Im Wirtshaus’ suggests a deepening life-weariness, with no hint of defiance in the last line. The final upshot is a profoundly touching winter journey, one that conveys all of the wanderer’s pathos, vulnerability and isolation. Schreier’s journey across the snowbound landscape is more engulfing, a merciless portrayal of emotional and spiritual disintegration that is only enhanced (in this cycle) by the astringent edge on his tone. But Kaufmann’s combination of vocal beauty and verbal sensitivity (his diction always a model), and the fastidiously textured and coloured playing of Helmut Deutsch, make this new recording an important addition to the vast Winterreise discography.

Winterreise

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau bar Jörg Demus pf

(DG) Recorded 1965

On the verge of his fifth decade, Fischer-Dieskau was in his absolute prime. Listening to his interpretation is like coming home to base after many interesting encounters away from the familiar. Indeed, it’s possibly the finest of all in terms of beauty of tone and ease of technique – and how beautiful, how smooth and velvety was the baritone’s voice at that time. This is the most interior, unadorned and undemonstrative of his readings, perhaps because Demus, a discerning musician and sure accompanist, is the most reflective of all the singer’s many partners in the cycle. Demus never strikes out on his own, is always there, unobtrusively and subtly supportive, with the right colour and phrasing, literally in hand.

Given an intimate, slightly dry recording, finely remastered, the whole effect is of a pair communing with each other and stating the sad, distraught message of Schubert’s bleak work in terms of a personal message to the listener in the home. A deeply rewarding performance.

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