Essential Music: Franz Schubert’s Complete Songs

Music Review: Franz Schubert Complete Songs
Hyperion Records
40 CDs plus book containing song texts, 2005. List price GBP 180.

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In 1987, Hyperion Records began what turned out to be a colossal project: the recording of all of Franz Schubert’s songs (or lieder), a total of 729 songs performed by over 60 soloists. Some of these songs are for male voice, others for female voice, and others for several singers together. (In comparison, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s landmark recording of all the lieder for solo male voice includes 463 songs on 21 CDs; now available at a bargain price.) Originally released on 37 CDs, over a period of 18 years (the amount of time it took Schubert to compose all these songs, before his early death), this new set presents the songs in chronological order. It is hard to understate the monumental scope of this set. Never before have all of these songs been available together, and never before have listeners been able to appreciate the broad scope of Schubert’s compositions.

Beginning with an idea by accompanist Graham Johnson, and continued as a labor of love (and a relative commercial success), Hyperion Records managed to bring together many of the great lieder singers of the time, even providing showcases for young singers who would go on to become essential performers in this genre. From “classic” singers such as Ann Murray, Janet Baker and Peter Schreier, to new finds like Ian Bostridge and Matthias Goerne, this set is full of great voices. Even the grandfather of Schubert lieder, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, makes a cameo appearance, reading some poems that are part of the cycle Die Schöne Müllerin, by Wilhelm Müller, which Schubert did not set to music.

Added to this set (and released separately in 2006) are three discs of songs by Schubert’s friends and contemporaries, including Beethoven, Haydn, Mendelssohn, and others, giving the listener an overview of the type of lieder that influenced him. But it is the 37 discs of Schubert’s songs that are important here; the “extras” are just that, like special features on a DVD.

Listening to this set in chronological order is enlightening, as one can grasp the evolution in the subtlety and depth of Schubert’s compositions. Starting with his earliest songs, written in his teens, and progressing through his final year, as he was 31, the journey is long, yet rewarding. Schubert’s music is the most accomplished of the genre, and the excellent choice of soloists – along with the brilliant accompaniment by Graham Johnson – imbues a great deal of variety and a rich palette of vocal colors. Unlike the Fischer-Dieskau set (which, I must confess, is one of my absolute favorite sets of classical music), where one listens to the range and expanse of a single, masterful voice, the Hyperion set gives the listener a chance to discover the music in more variety. For those who do not like Fischer-Dieskau, this set can be an eye-opener. However, it will never, for me, replace the Fischer-Dieskau set…

While I do not like all the singers on this set, most of them are excellent. Many of the singers lack the immersion that Fischer-Dieskau had in this music, but others are revelations. The recordings by Brigitte Faessbender are excellent, as are those by Stephen Varcoe, a singer I was not familiar with before. Thomas Hampson’s recordings here show him in his youth, and many of the other male singers – such as Philip Langridge, John Mark Ainsley and Anthony Rolfe Johnson – rise to the occasion, providing many delightful performances. (You’ll notice my preference for male voices for this music, but this does not mean that there are not many excellent female voices in this set; Edith Mathis’ performance of An die Musik is one of the highlights of the set, and Arleen Auger is excellent.)

One of the revelations in this set, for me, is the many songs for several singers, including those with chorus. These songs are a little-known and rarely recorded facet of Schubert’s work, and this set allows listeners to discover just how many such songs there are, and the general tone of joviality they express.

In addition to the 40 CDs in this set, Hyperion includes a book (258,096 words, as Hyperion specifies on the box) containing an introduction by Graham Johnson and the complete texts of all the songs. While this is laudable, there are a few negatives to this book. The type is relatively small (fine for teenaged eyes, perhaps, but that is clearly not the target audience for this set), and the English translations of the songs, in a column next to the German originals, are in italics, making them even harder to read. (For a different take, and easier readability, John Reed’s Schubert Song Companion is a good investment.) Broken down by year, with an introduction for each year talking about Schubert’s activities, the texts appear chronologically, as they do on the discs. The back of the book contains an index by title and by poet, composer or translator, but, alas, not by singer.

Purchasers of the original CDs in this series will be familiar with the copious notes by Graham Johnson that accompanies these discs; unfortunately, these notes are not included in the set, and are scheduled to be released in book form in the near future. (Yale University Press may be publishing several books containing these notes at some point, and, hopefully, will not charge their usual “scholarly” price, so music lovers will be able to acquire these notes.)

All in all, this set is essential for any serious fan of Schubert’s lieder, or lieder in general. While it is not cheap, the per-disc price is relatively low; congratulations are in order to Hyperion for having released the set at such an affordable price. While other recordings of Schubert’s lieder will be made, this set will clearly remain the benchmark for his music; with the exception, of course, of the Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau recordings. To be honest, no serious fan of Schubert’s lieder should be without either of these sets.

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