Music Review: Schubert Lieder, by Matthias Goerne

Lieder goerneThe 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 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.

Essential Music: Franz Schubert’s Complete Songs

034571142012Franz Schubert Complete Songs
Hyperion Records
40 CDs plus book containing song texts, 2005. List price £150.

Buy from:, Amazon UK. Buy directly from Hyperion Records, on CD or by download.

In 1987, Hyperion Records began 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 of all the lieder for solo male voice includes 463 songs on 21 CDs; now available at a bargain price. (, Amazon UK)) 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), and grouped by theme or year, 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 range 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 interesting to become familiar with what other composers were writing at the time, and to compare styles with Schubert.

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, when 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 doesn’t 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 (, Amazon UK) 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.

71QMqKSpqgLPurchasers 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. For in-depth information about the songs, Graham Johnson has expanded these liner notes to the original releases into a 3-volume, 3,000 page set, which is finally due for publication very soon.

All in all, this set is essential for any serious fan of Schubert’s lieder, or lieder in general. It’s also a relative bargain; 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. If you like this music, you should own this set.

Graham Johnson’s Monumental Work on Schubert’s Lieder to Be Released Soon

Update: I first posted this in June, and the publication date has slipped back several times. Right now, it shows a release date of September 15, or tomorrow, so maybe we’ll see this set next week.

Graham Johnson, the pianist behind Hyperion Record’s monumental series of Schubert’s complete lieder, is known for having a lot to say about these songs. His liner notes to the original releases of the series are rich and full of insight. Unfortunately, the current box set doesn’t come with those notes, but just a book of the lyrics to the songs.

But Johnson has been hard at work for several years, writing the definitive work on Schubert’s lieder, and this book is ready for publication. Published by Yale University Press, Franz Schubert: The Complete Songs (, Amazon UK) is a 3-volume, 3,000 page set, and will be released soon. (It’s been delayed, and seems to be available on August 15.) At $300, or £200, it’s a big investment, but it will be worth the money. I saw one of the volumes during a visit to Hyperion Records in June, and the books are massive and well designed.

Here’s what the publisher has to say:

This three-volume boxed set is the definitive work on Franz Schubert’s vocal music with piano. A richly illustrated encyclopedia, these substantial volumes contain more than seven hundred song commentaries with parallel text and translations (by Richard Wigmore), detailed annotations on the songs’ poetic sources, and biographies of one hundred and twenty poets, as well as general articles on accompaniment, tonality, transcriptions, singers, and more. Compiled by Graham Johnson–celebrated accompanist, author, and the first pianist ever to record all of Schubert’s songs and part-songs–this sumptuous work is a must for performers, scholars, and all lovers of Schubert lieder.

If you’re a lover of Schubert’s lieder, you’ll want to get this, in spite of its somewhat high price; it’s more expensive than getting the CDs in the budget box set from Hyperion (, Amazon UK). But having read Johnson’s liner notes to the original CDs, I can only imagine how much more interesting this larger set of books will be. I’ll be spending a lot of time with these books.

Watch Graham Johnson discuss the book:

Why Are There So Few Complete Sets of Schubert’s Lieder?

Yesterday, I received a copy of Naxos’ Deutsche Schubert-Lied-Edition, their 38-disc set of Schubert’s lieder, or art songs. Schubert’s lieder is one of my favorite parts of the classical repertoire, and I have many recordings by different singers. Yet, there are only two complete sets of his songs: the Naxos set, and Hyperion’s 40-disc set, which contains 37 discs of Schubert’s songs, together 3 discs of songs by his friends and contemporaries (which is a valuable addition to the set, putting Schubert’s songs in the broader context of his time).

This music is quite popular; singers regularly release new collections of Schubert’s lieder, and perform recitals of this music around the world. Yet only two complete sets of these songs exist. There are other monoliths of classical music that cover as many discs, or even more, and are better represented in the catalog. Take Bach’s cantatas, for example (another of my favorites). There are at least six complete sets of these works (either completed or in progress), and they cover around 60 CDs. Or Haydn’s symphonies: there are four complete sets of these, and they cover from 33 to 37 discs.

But Schubert’s lieder, even though popular (an Amazon search turns up more than 1,000 results) doesn’t inspire the same type of completeness.

It’s worth noting that the two existing Schubert sets were all “organized” or “overseen” by accompanists, rather than singers: Graham Johnson for the Hyperion edition, and Ulrich Eisenlohr for the Naxos. For the former, Johnson chose the best lieder singers of the time, over the many years it took to record the series. For the Naxos series, a focus was made on young German singers, rather than having singers whose native tongue was not German. (It’s worth noting that Johnson plays piano on all the Hyperion discs; Eisenlohr plays on 31 of the 38 Naxos discs.)

No one singer could record all of Schubert’s lieder. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau did record all of the songs for solo male voice, or more than half of them, on 21 CDs (my favorite Schubert lieder recordings), but he did not record those written for soprano, or part-songs, with multiple singers. So while an individual singer might oversee such a project, they couldn’t perform all the works. Also, this is a long project to realize, and no singer today could devote themselves to just Schubert’s music for that long. The total time of the Hyperion set is just under 43 hours (not counting the three discs of friends and contemporaries); the Naxos set is a bit over 40 hours. The amount of time it takes to record that much music is monumental.

There are many excellent lieder singers today, and, while it’s interesting to have a handful of discs from them, it would be nice to see more attention paid to these songs. The Hyperion and Naxos sets are both excellent, in different ways, and are complimentary, to those who really appreciate this music. But I’d love to see one or two more sets. Are any labels out there willing to take up the gauntlet? I could imagine Harmonia Mundi or Bis doing such a series; the former has already released several volumes of Schubert’s lieder by Matthias Goerne, and, while he couldn’t sing everything, perhaps they’ll continue with other singers.

One note: if you’re a fan of Schubert’s lieder, you should definitely own a copy of John Reed’s Schubert Song Companion, which gives excellent translations for all the songs. You should also get Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s Schubert’s Songs: A Biographical Study. This book is out of print in English, but used copies are available from many on-line booksellers. I have a copy of the French translation, and it’s an interesting look at the songs by someone who knows them very well. A commenter also points out The Fischer-Dieskau Book of Lieder, which contains some songs by Schubert, but also songs by other composers.

A note on the Naxos box set: this comes with a 429-page book, which includes track listings, notes on the music, for each disc, artist information, and indexes. It does not, however, contain song texts, either in the original German or in translation, though the song titles are translated on each disc’s sleeve. (You can download PDFs with sung texts for each volume of the series from this web page. The book is entirely in English, which is the “international version” of the set; there is also a “German version,” which presumably has this book in German. This book is impressive, and useful, but, frankly, I’d very much like to have it in PDF format. It’s hard to read CD liner notes with their small print, and a book this thick is a bit unwieldy. Nevertheless, it’s good that it’s included.

Also, flipping through the notes as I started listening to this set, I spotted a mention that six of the discs feature the fortepiano, the type of instrument that Schubert used, which is different from today’s piano. This is interesting, and I’m looking forward to hearing how these discs sound. This makes me think that if there were another complete set to be made, it would be nice if it were on fortepiano…