‘My Lieder are not meant to awake the passions, but to create peace and tranquillity’, wrote Robert Franz (1815 92) of his prolific output of songs. In his heyday the Saxon composer’s Lieder – some 280 in total – were ranked alongside Schumann’s and Mendelssohn’s, though by the end of his life Franz’s modest, miniaturist art had fallen from fashion in the new, post-Wagnerian aesthetic. His Lieder have appeared spasmodically on disc over the last decade or so. But it falls to the seasoned Lieder partnership of Hyperion and Graham Johnson – who else? – to produce the first CD entirely devoted to Franz. Given the composer’s self-imposed expressive limitations (‘chasteness’ was his watchword), I wouldn’t suggest playing all 47 tracks in a single sitting. But with eloquent advocacy from Johnson – both in his notes and in his aptly scaled playing – and the sweet-toned young Irish tenor Robin Tritschler, Franz’s Lieder en masse turn out to be more enjoyable than I’d hitherto suspected.
It is Franz’s misfortune that many of the poems he set have been immortalised by other composers, above all Schumann in his Heine Liederkreis, Op 24, and Dichterliebe. Alongside Schumann’s, Franz’s songs tend to sound more comfortable, more domesticated. But on their own terms they beguile with their melodic charm and grace, and the discreet aptness of their word-setting. Franz’s tender, innig ‘Am leuchtenden Sonnenmorgen’, with its gently plashing accompaniment, is hardly less ravishing than Schumann’s. Other highlights include the dulcet lullaby ‘Schlummerlied’, to a Tieck poem made famous in Brahms’s ‘Ruhe Süssliebchen’; the poignant moonscape ‘Wie des Mondes Abbild’, with its harmonic shock to match Heine’s final twist; and, in lighter mode, Franz’s delightful setting of ‘Es treibt mich hin’, matching Schumann’s Op 24 song in piquancy and surpassing it in humour.
With Johnson’s discerning support, Tritschler confirms his credentials as a natural in Lieder. His is a voice of spring, fresh and easy on the ear, produced with a care both for clarity of diction and a true singing line. Tritschler is a lively, sensitive interpreter, too. He catches the drama of the Eichendorff Lorelei ballad ‘Romanze’ and the passion of the (for Franz) uncommonly acerbic Heine song ‘Ja, du bist elend’. But Franz’s songs typically demand, and get, dulcet tone, perfect dynamic control, including a limpid mezza voce, and refined phrasing, nowhere more alluringly than in the hushed Mörike nocturne ‘Um Mitternacht’ that, as Johnson points out, palpably influenced Hugo Wolf’s setting.