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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Essential Music: Pink Floyd, The Wall

I hadn’t listened to The Wall in ages, but, this morning, I decided to spin it. I had noticed that Roger Waters is playing four shows in Paris next week, and I was trying to convince my son, who’s doing an internship in Paris, to go see it. (Even if only nosebleed seats are left.) He’s a Pink Floyd fan, but, like many fans of the band, his favorite albums are those up to and including Animals.

But listening again to The Wall I am reminded what wonderful songs this album contains. Sure, the whole “concept album” thing gets in the way, especially when you listen to the recording (as opposed to seeing it in concert). I was fortunate to be able to see the original tour in February, 1980, at the Nassau Coliseum. I recall a friend and I having spent $35 each to get tickets from a scalper, and we had decent seats at the far end of the arena, opposite the stage, about mid-level. This gave a good overall view of the stage, though it was far enough that the performers were small. (No big screens showing video back then.)

It was a memorable concert, not only for the staging, but also for the sound. When we arrived, one of the first things we noticed was a huge number of speakers at the top of the arena, just below the ceiling, all around; this provided an interesting soundstage. Also, there were props hung from the ceiling, such as the plane that crashes into the wall during In the Flesh?

But back to the songs. Comfortably Numb, In the Flesh?, Mother, Is There Anybody Out There?, Run Like Hell, and, of course, the mega-hit Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2, are all powerful songs that would have made up an excellent album on their own. Like operas, there is filler holding the songs together, and if you take out the lesser bits, you have a good hour of fine songs, and some searing guitar solos to boot.

While not Pink Floyd’s best album by a long shot – personally, my favorite is Wish You Were Here (soon to be re-re-released in an “Immersion Box Set“), followed by Dark Side of the Moon (another Immersion Box Set); I have a soft spot for Meddle, especially the 23:31 Echoes, one of the great space songs of the late 60s.

The only time I was able to see the band live was during the Wall tour, and I will long remember just how impressive the stage show was. Again, not the band’s best album, but pick out the great songs and make a playlist; you’ll have a nice hour’s listen.

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Essential Music: Faith by The Cure

In a discussion today with a colleague about music, I recalled the wonderful years in the late 70s and early 80s when discovering new music was so different than it is now. One discovered music in “record stores” where one would flip through bins of “LPs” or “albums,” and, if one was lucky, one could ask purveyor of the store to play part of a record.

I was interested in obscure music, and, for a few years, my life was similar to that described in High Fidelity (both the book and the movie). I was friends with a guy who worked in a small record store in Jamaica, New York, and would go there and hang out after getting off the subway on my way home from work. There would be a few of us – a gnarly crowd, as in High Fidelity – all interested in the new wave music coming from the UK.

This was a time of small labels, and one of the bands we discovered at the time was The Cure. First through their UK-only release Three Imaginary Boys, then their first US release – a compilation of songs from Three Imaginary Boys and from some singles, called Boys Don’t Cry, which features that wonderful Camus-inspired song Killing an Arab. Later, the band morphed from a pop-ish post-punk band to a more gloomy sound with Seventeen Seconds, which had more “production” and a darker, euro-synth sound.

Finally, in 1981, came Faith, arguably the band’s finest album. Opening with the gray Holy Hour, it shifted back to the rhythmic pop of the early Cure with Primary, which highlighted the many wonderful short melodic phrases that made up the band’s early sound. Next come Other Voices (with hints of Joy Division) and All Cats are Grey, with a darker sound, yet stronger rhythm, and that ended side 1. (Remember when albums had sides?)

Side two features four gloomier songs: The Funeral Party, with lush vocals and a dirge-like tempo; Doubt, a fast-paced guitar-and-drums song, with very gruesome lyrics; The Drowning Man, a brilliantly minimalist guitar riff track, and probably the second-best song on the album; this track is based on Mervyn Peakes “The Gormenghast Trilogy.”

Finally, we get to the title track, Faith, a dirge. The final song is, perhaps, the band’s most powerful track, culminating what is a dark yet somehow optimistic album.

Catch me if I fall
I’m losing hold
I can’t just carry on this way
And every time
I turn away
Lose another blind game
The idea of perfection holds me
Suddenly I see you change
Everything at once
The same
But the mountain never moves

Rape me like a child
Christened in blood
Painted like an unknown saint
There’s nothing left but hope
Your voice is dead
And old
And always empty
Trust in me through closing years
Perfect moments wait
If only we could stay
Say the right words
Or cry like the stone white clown
And stand forever
Lost forever in a happy crowd

No one lifts their hands
No one lifts their eyes
Justified with empty words
The party just gets better and better

I went away alone
With nothing left
But faith

On the b-side of the cassette version of Faith was Carnage Visors, the soundtrack to an animated film that the band projected at their concerts in lieu of an opening act. At nearly 28 minutes, this piece made me wish they did more long pieces like this. I saw The Cure in a concert in New York in 1981, and they projected the film, but I seem to recall that they didn’t play the music live, alas.

I would listen to this album on my Sony Pressman, a precursor to the Walkman, that weighed as much as a brick, but let me hear music on the go. (Oh, how far we have come.) It was the perfect soundtrack to walking to and from my home and friends’ houses in the suburban night. It was one of my favorite albums of that period, in spite of its gloom. I have to say, the “goth” aspect of The Cure didn’t exist at the time; even when I saw them in concert, I didn’t see what would later be a growing goth movement (which I did see, a year or two later, at a Siouxsie & the Banshees concert). Together with Seventeen Seconds, and the earlier pop tracks, The Cure was a defining group for me in that period. Listening to Faith again today – something I haven’t done in years – reminded me just how good the music of that time was. While the melodies are stark, they are imbued with a sense of darkness, yet not the terminal darkness of Joy Division.

The band changed a lot shortly after this. Their 1982 album Pornography was the final record in this sort-of-trilogy (Seventeen Seconds, Faith, Pornography), and took the gloom a bit further. Around that time, singer Robert Smith cultivated a bizarre goth-makeup-weird-hair persona, and turned toward MTV-friendly pop music, until he became a parody of himself. But for a few years, The Cure was one of the most original bands around. If you listen to just one of their albums, Faith is the most unforgettable; if you grew up with it, you’ll certainly never forget it.

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Essential Music: Bach’s Goldberg Variations

Johann Sebastian Bach wrote a huge amount of astoundingly beautiful music, from solo keyboard works to cantatas; from small-scale chamber works, to large passions; from music for organ to works for solo violin or cello. But if there’s one work that stands out as a summation of his music it is the Goldberg Variations, a work written for a two-manual (two keyboard) harpsichord.

This work contains an opening aria, or a melodic sarabande, followed by 30 variations, then a repeat of the aria closes the piece. Collections of variations were relatively common in Bach’s time; in fact, it is possible that Bach was inspired by a set of variations written by Dietrich Buxtehude, called La Capricciosa. But in Bach’s work, the variations do not vary the them of the aria. Rather, they riff on the bass line and chord progression of the aria, which, while not unheard of (other types of works, such as the passacaglia, are based on a similar principle), is unique, given the extent of Bach’s variations.

I have some 25 versions of this work, played on harpsichord, piano, organ, clavichord and guitar, and I never tire of hearing it. The Goldberg Variations is a work that contains a wide variety of forms: from the opening aria, with its sinuous, infective melody, through the many canons in the work, to the wonderful variation 25, which Wanda Landowska called the “black pearl” of the Goldberg Variations (the longest variation, and the most moving), on to the final reprise of the aria.

Many people will be familiar with this work through the recordings of Glenn Gould. He recorded it twice, once in 1955 and again in 1981. These were to be his first and last recordings, and they are available in a budget set called A State of Wonder. Gould’s first recording was a gamble at the time, because this was a work that had been rarely recorded, but it became an immediate best-seller. He later revisited the work, at the end of his life, with more gravitas and less impetuosity, but both versions are wonderful. Gould seems to rush through the first recording, in part because of the limit of the amount of music that could be put on an LP at the time; his 1955 recording is just over 38 minutes. In 1981, he played the work in around 51 minutes, but his tempi only changed slightly; much of the difference in time was his playing more of the repeats. (In the score, Bach has the performer play each variation twice, which was common for baroque music. Few performers play all the repeats.)

There are many, many other fine performances of this work though. A few that I especially appreciate are:

There are many others to explore, including a recording for harp by Catrin Finch (a bit too spacy for me), and several versions for string trio, recordings for organ, and many other instruments. Whichever way your pleasure tends, you’ll find one that fits your taste.

If you want to try out this work, any of the above versions would be a good place to start, but I firmly believe that Glenn Gould’s 1981 recording is the most moving of all for piano, followed closely by Schiff and Perahia. On the harpsichord, Richard Egarr has a beautiful sound, and his recording is the longest in my collection at over 90 minutes for the Goldbergs (there are some other brief works on the two-disc set). Scott Ross’s more concise reading of the work has a bit more bounce, and Masaaki Suzuki is delicate and masterful. So if you don’t know the Goldbergs, you owe it to yourself to get a copy of it and discover this masterpiece of Bach’s keyboard music.

One more thing: for an enigmatic read that is somewhat based on the Goldberg Variations, do check out Richard Powers’ The Gold Bug Variations. “Once more with feeling.”

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Essential Music: Brian Eno’s Ambient Compositions

There are some kinds of music that, when you first hear them, sound like they are music that you’ve always heard in your head, but never on a record. That’s how I felt when I first heard Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports shortly after it was first released. The self-effacing title of this 1978 album suggests that it might be a form of muzak, or taffelmusik. In fact, that was, in some ways, the goal of the work. It was designed to be played as background music, but the kind that you could focus on at any time and appreciate the qualities of the music. Eno, according to Wikipedia,

conceived this idea while being stuck at Cologne Bonn Airport in Germany in the mid 70s. He had to spend several hours there and was extremely annoyed by the uninspired sound atmosphere.

This four-part, 48-minute work, was the first album to bear the moniker “ambient,” though it was not Eno’s first truly ambient work. While other albums featuring a similar tone were made prior to Music for Airports, this was the first one consciously designed with what would become the ambient ethos.

Eno’s Discreet Music predated Music for Airports by three years, and, featuring the eponymous 30-minute track, as well as three experimental “remixes” of Pachelbel’s Canon, was the first true ambient work, designed as a background track for Robert Fripp to play over in concert.

Eno would go on to create other album-length ambient works, such as the 61-minute Thursday Afternoon, in 1985 (perhaps his best long work), the 58-minute Neroli (as of this writing, just 99 cents in MP3 format on Amazon) in 1993, and the 1999 I Dormienti, a 40-minute soundtrack for an installation.

Much of Eno’s music is ambient in nature, and he has recorded many other albums with the same tone, but others are more collections of shorter tracks, or collaborations, such as those with Harold Budd or Robert Fripp. But the five long ambient albums remain the most successful approaches to ambient music. While there are now thousands of people composing “ambient” music – after Eno, it became a genre of its own – Brian Eno’s albums are the pillars of this type of music. If you’re unfamiliar with this music, go for Music for Airports and Thursday Afternoon first. The title track of Discreet Music is excellent (though I don’t like the remixes of Pachelbel’s Canon). And Neroli is a dark, yet moving piece as well. No matter what, you owe yourself to discover this moving, meditative music.

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Essential Music: Ultravox!

Okay, I’m in a 70s music mood these days. Recent posts have been about Genesis and Fela Kuti, both of whom I discovered in the mid to late 70s, as well as Jerry Garcia, whose music has been with me since around 1976 and who, together with The Grateful Dead, is one of the staples of my iTunes library.

Today’s listen is Ultravox!, a sui generis group that flourished in the 70s, before changing drastically after founding singer-songwriter John Foxx left the band. The band’s first album, Ultravox!, was released in 1977. It was a combination of pre-punk, glam rock, and pre-new wave. (Ultravox would later become a popular new wave band, but I’ll get to that.) The quality of John Foxx’s songwriting, and singing, make it easy to put this album side-by-side with early Roxy Music and David Bowie, one of their influences, but the music is not at all derivative. Foxx is very sincere: In I Want to Be a Machine, Foxx sings like he really means it. The Wild, The Beautiful & The Damned is a powerful rock ballad. And My Sex, with its combination of 70s Euro-drab-chic and Pink Floyd-esque sounds. Produced by Brian Eno and Steve Lillywhite, this album is a snapshot of a transitional period between early 70s rock and the nascent punk rock.

Released later the same year, the band’s second album, Ha!-Ha!-Ha!, takes the same moody music but pumps up the energy. From the punky Rockwrok and Fear in the Western World to the Euro-gray Hiroshima Mon Amour, through the introspective The Man Who Dies Every Day, Ultravox honed their sound, with catchy songs that nevertheless depict the monochromic urban world of 1970s England.

For their third album, released in 1978, Systems of Romance, Foxx is at his peak in songwriting, and Quiet Men would become his signature song, even after he left the band. The music becomes smoother and grayer, using synthesizers, and suggests what would soon be heard from Joy Division and other groups. Produced by Conny Plank, the producer of Kraftwerk, the influences of krautrock are clear. But this would be the last of the group’s albums with John Foxx, leaving this trilogy of excellent songs that depict the heart of a decade.

After Foxx left, Midge Ure came in as singer, and the group changed to a more new wave sound. In fact, listening to their 1980 Vienna, one would be hard pressed to find much of a link between the two periods. I saw Ultravox! live in a small club in New York in 1980, and they performed a combination of older songs along with those from Vienna (there were several hit singles from that album), and I recall the band all wearing those early-80s new wave coats while performing. (If you ever see any old new wave music videos, you’ll know what I mean.) It was a good performance, but I regret never seeing John Foxx perform live.

Foxx released Metamatic in 1980, which could be seen as the first real electro-pop album of the new wave era. Hugely influential, it was followed in 1981 by The Garden, and Foxx set out on a career of electronic and ambient music, and has been an important composer in this area.

But when I listen to those three early Ultravox! albums, I’m reminded of a wonderful period of music before MTV, on the cusp of punk, and before New Wave would bring a lot of bland, formatted music to the airwaves.

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Essential Music: Genesis, Seconds Out

Back in the 1970s, as a teenager in New York City, I had amazing opportunities to see concerts by the world’s most popular bands. In the mid-70s, I became a fan of Genesis, the group formed by Peter Gabriel and Tony Banks back in 1967. Around 1976, I discovered their music through their album Trick of the Tail, the first album after Gabriel left the band. This led me to get their older albums – those with Gabriel – and their follow-up, Wind & Wuthering. These two mid-70s albums were excellent, but the music was different from the Gabriel era.

From the touring for these two albums, Genesis compiled a double-album called Seconds Out. It includes one of the great Peter Gabriel songs, Supper’s Ready, which is over 24 minutes in this live recording, along with many other songs from the 76-77 albums, and a few older songs (The Musical Box, Cinema Show, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway).

But as a live album, Seconds Out is one of the highlights of the late 70s. It is consistent, well recorded, and well performed. Yes, it was the period after Gabriel left the band, and his unique voice and performance style were missing. But it wasn’t the descent into cloying pop music that would follow after 1980. Collins is a strong singer and drummer, and the album, in fact, has a strong presence of drums, with both Collins and Chester Thompson, who played with the band when touring, being central to the sound (especially in the closing Dance on a Volcano > Los Endos, two very drum-heavy songs).

I was able to see Genesis live just once, at Madison Square Garden, on July 29, 1978. This was a special performance, as there was an unannounced guest for an encore: Peter Gabriel came out and sang I Know What I Like with Phil Collins to close the show.

Genesis was a powerful performing band, with what was, for the time, an adventurous light show and excellent sound. I listen to Seconds Out from time to time and feel a bit younger. If you’re not familiar with Genesis back before they became a staple of MTV, this is a good place to start.

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Essential Music: Dark Star, by the Grateful Dead

As any Grateful Dead fan (aka Deadhead) will tell you, “Dark Star” is the ultimate Dead song. This cosmic symphony of rock was the optimal vehicle for the group’s improvisations, a template for the moods and feelings that the various musicians wanted to express in their music. Jerry Garcia said, “Dark Star has meant, while I was playing it, almost as many things as I can sit here and imagine,” and Phil Lesh called it “the one we tacitly agreed on where anything was okay.”

While the Dead jammed many of their songs, Dark Star has a special place. It stands aside several other classic tunes that often stretched on for 30 minutes or more–That’s It for the Other One, Turn on Your Lovelight, Playin’ In the Band–but always offered a less structured environment for improvisation. The Grateful Dead performed Dark Star at least 232 times, according to Deadbase.On an absolute level, there are no Dark Stars, but there is one long, discontinuous Dark Star, which was proven so adeptly by John Oswald in his Grayfolded, a melding and morphing of dozens of Dark Stars into a long, single piece that embodies the essence of Dark Star.

The ur-Dark Star must remain the 2/27/69 version, immortalized on the Live Dead album, which was released later the same year. This version has almost chamber-music perfection and subtlety, and its inclusion on the Dead’s first live release raised it to a special place in the Pantheon of Dead songs. It was the Dark Star that Deadheads (other than those who traded tapes) listened to over and over.

Every other Dark Star flows from that version. Whether it be the raucous 8/27/72 performance, recorded in the scorching Oregon heat, where Jerry Garcia’s notes spit from his amps like fire bolts; the sinuous 9/21/72 version (at over 37 minutes), with its long, mellow noodling; or the jazzy Halloween 1971 version, every Dark Star has its own character and mood. Other classic Dark Stars include the 2/13/70 Fillmore East recording, which is part of one of the Dead’s greatest concerts ever, and the 48-minute 5/11/72 version played in Rotterdam.

Dark Star will remain, for aficionados of the Grateful Dead, the hallmark of their work. While the Dead performed hundreds of different songs, the scope and breadth–and length–of Dark Star makes it the highlight of almost every live Grateful Dead recording.

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