Schubert Orchestrated Lieder
Schubert himself orchestrated only one of these songs, the Romance from Rosamunde. The other arrangers are Berlioz, Brahms, Britten, Liszt, Offenbach, Reger and Webern: hardly an everyday list of ordinary hacks. Perhaps Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian and a few others working in colour on drawings by Leonardo might provide a suggestion of something comparable. We would hope, in such a case, for almost contradictory features – respect for the original and evidence of something personal in the treatment. And certainly that is what we have here.
In Erlkönig Berlioz relives that haunted ride of father and son to the inn with his imagination aglow, almost writing the opening of Die Walküre in the process. Brahms so takes the dawn-devoted Memnon to his heart that Schubert’s harmonies become an exquisite personal possession, the song set within an orchestral framework of the utmost loveliness. Britten in Die Forelle keeps his eye on the fish, its lithe movements illuminated by the clarinet, lost to aural view in the muddy waters stirred up by the thievish angler. Reger is the most frequent contributor and perhaps the least valuable; by his late-19th-century lights he generally does a good job, something better perhaps in Nacht und Träume, something (I would say) worse in Gretchen am Spinnrade. Webern, whose four arrangements date from 1903, is fascinating. The desolate heart of ‘Der Wegweiser’ is uncannily open to him; the deceptive reassurances of the lulling brook in ‘Tränenregen’, too.
It is a programme of a kind not often attempted on records – Hermann Prey did something similar in a disc for RCA around 25 years ago (11/77 – nla). It makes good sense to use two singers: Ellen, Gretchen and the young nun on the one hand, Prometheus and Memnon on the other, require this luxury. To have such artists as von Otter and Quasthoff with a conductor of Abbado’s standing is a privilege indeed, particularly to be valued because it confers on these arrangements a recognition and status which on the whole are richly deserved. Von Otter sings with (to my mind) rather too much of her wide-eyed Children’s Hour style, but she is never even momentarily inert or commonplace, and sometimes, as in Erlkönig and Gruppe aus dem Tartarus, with strikingly imaginative intensity. Quasthoff, too, is impressive in the ‘big’ songs, especially Prometheus and An Schwager Kronos. The orchestra, under Abbado, play with distinction – which is just as well, for in this of all song-recitals what they play is the prime centre of interest.