The popularity of Schubert’s waxes and wanes. In recent years, we have seen the finalization of a long-term project of Schubert’s Complete Songs, from Hyperion Records, as well as a monumental two-volume study of the work by pianist Graham Johnson, the organizer of the Hyperion series. There was also a complete edition from Naxos, but surprisingly, there are only those two complete sets.
The great Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is the reigning king of the genre, with his 21-disc set of all the songs for male voice, but there hasn’t been much competition. There are many fine singers, who record a few discs of the songs, but no one has taken on the mantle of this level of completeness.
Enter baritone Matthias Goerne, who has studied with Fischer-Dieskau, and whose Goerne/Schubert Edition on Harmonia Mundi, over 12 CDs, was completed in 2014, and finally released in a box set at the end of last year. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) I recently picked up this set, and have been spinning it on my CD player for the past week, and it is clear that Goerne is this generation’s Fischer-Dieskau. He has a similarly powerful voice, yet is able to tone it down when necessary. His range is excellent, his diction, obviously, perfect (some non-Germans get criticized for their diction), and the musicality of his phrasing is ideal. As much as I like some of the tenors who sing Schubert lieder – Ian Bostridge, for example – it’s the baritone voice that gives this music its full palette of colors.
Interestingly, the set features a number of different pianists, who give each disc a slightly different color. (And one disc includes Christoph Eschesbach’s recording of Schubert’s d.960 piano sonata.) The set contains the three major song cycles, of course – Die Schöne Müllerin, Schwanengesang, and Winterreise – but the rest of the recordings are a wonderful selection of the best of Schubert’s lieder.
It’s worth noting that Goerne has also recorded the song cycles with pianist Alfred Brendel (Schwanengesang and Winterreise), and Eric Schneider (Die schöne Müllerin), as well as recording Winterreise for Hyperion, in their complete set, as well as a few other collections of Schubert’s songs.
There probably isn’t enough demand for him to record the rest of the songs for male voice, a set that would rival Fischer-Dieskau’s recordings in their quality. And there doesn’t seem to be a female singer working on a similar project for the remainder of the work, which is a shame. It would be great to see a set with both voices, perhaps with someone like Bernard Fink, who is also a fine lieder singer, to come up with a solid, modern, complete set of the music. The Hyperion set, while excellent, has both good and bad. Some of the voices are ideal, and others past their prime. Some of the women warble a bit much, and the styles are often more English than German. As for the Naxos set, it’s really a mixed bag: there are some very good records, but overall it’s not up to snuff.
Goerne is certainly the pre-eminent baritone for this music today, and I hope that he will continue to record those songs that have so far been left out.