Schiff schubertFrom time to time, I get a bit tired of listening to music. I have a huge music collection, and, every now and then, I get music overload; I simply don’t want to listen to much music, except as background, as a soundtrack to my working days and leisure hours.

But when that happens, one album, one recording invariably snaps me out of that lethargic state. In this case, András Schiff’s recent recording of Schubert piano works on ECM did the trick (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store). I love Schubert; I think that, if there were a zombie apocalypse and I could only save the works of one composer, I would choose Schubert. His lieder, his piano sonatas, his string quartets, and especially his astounding string quintet are all works that connect deeply with me.

This new recording by András Schiff awakened me from my musical stupor. I bought it more than a month ago, and hadn’t had the time to sit down and listen to it correctly, but last night, I did just that, and I was amazed. Amazed by the quality of Mr Schiff’s playing – no surprise there, of course, given his long career playing the works of Schubert and other composers – but also of the delicate sound of the fortepiano he plays on this two-disc set of Schubert’s works.

Schiff was long averse to the idea of original instruments, but in the liner notes of this set, entitled Confessions of a Convert, he explains that “it’s evident that my initial views were wrong and prejudiced.” This is not the first time that Schiff has played on an original instrument. On a recent recording of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, also on ECM (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store), he played the Diabelli on two pianos, a piano made by Franz Brodmann in Vienna in 1820 and a 1921 Bechstein grand.

On this latest Schubert recording, he plays but a selection of piano works on the same fortepiano as the Beethoven, which Schiff has owned since 2010, and which is on loan to the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn. Over nearly two and a half hours, this program includes the six Moments Musicaux, the four D 935 Impromptus, and two sonatas, the D 894 and the majestic D 960, Schubert’s last.

This is one of those rare recordings that captures a perfect confluence of elements: great music, an excellent performer, a delicious sounding instrument, and a near-perfect sound. You may hesitate about a period instrument such as this, and if you’re convinced that only the modern piano, with its m’as-tu vu sound and excessive resonance is the only way to listen to this music, then move along, there’s nothing to see here. If however, you understand that one can really appreciate music like this on the type of instrument for which it was composed, then you should give this recording a listen. Schiff plays this instrument with such joy and delight that it’s hard to stop listening to it.

Schiff presents a recital, a selection of works organized in an order that highlights the music and the instrument. This instrument is muted, it lacks the harsh sonorities of the modern piano, but that hushed sound also gives it a certain strength. You can hear this in the trills of the fourth D 935 Impromptu, where nearly every note is part of a run across the keyboard, yet the piano renders each of these notes clearly and richly. The intimate sound of the recording makes the listener feel that he or she is in front of the piano, right in front of the keyboard, listening closely as the pianist plays just for them. It’s almost disconcerting to hear a piano recorded like this, but the luscious sound of this fortepiano lends itself to such close miking.

Of course, the main attraction of this set is the D 960 sonata, Schubert’s long 21st piano sonata, here just over 39 minutes. Schiff’s playing is nuanced and subtle, but he doesn’t hesitate to use the full volume of his fortepiano in the louder passages of this work. The piano resonates well when the lower register is played, notably in the final movement of the D 960, but it sings in the more lyrical opening movement.

Two and a half hours of Schubert on this nearly 200-year old piano is a rare treat, but one can hope for more. Perhaps Mr Schiff has recorded the other four Impromptus, and a couple more sonatas for another ECM release. If not, I hope he’ll record more music on this beautiful piano in the future.

New Book: Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession by Ian Bostridge

WintereisseTenor Ian Bostridge has a new book out, Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK; out now in the UK, out next month in the US) Here’s the publisher’s description:

“Schubert’s Winterreise is at the same time one of the most powerful and one of the most enigmatic masterpieces in Western culture. In his new book, Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession, Ian Bostridge – one of the work’s finest interpreters – focusses on the context, resonance and personal significance of a work which is possibly the greatest landmark in the history of Lieder. Drawing equally on his vast experience of performing this work (he has performed it more than a hundred times), on his musical knowledge and on his training as a scholar, Bostridge unpicks the enigmas and subtle meaning of each of the 24 songs to explore for us the world Schubert inhabited, bringing the work and its world alive for connoisseurs and new listeners alike. Originally intended to be sung to an intimate gathering, performances of Winterreise now pack the greatest concert halls around the world.”

I very much like the way Bostridge sings Schubert’s lieder, but I’ve never read any of his writing, such as his first book, Witchcraft and Its Transformations, C. 1650 – C. 1750, (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) or his later A Singer’s Notebook (Amazon.com, Amazon UK).

I’ve ordered this book, to accompany Graham Johnson’s Franz Schubert, The Complete Songs, and a few wonderful interpretations of Winterreise released in the past year, which will be the object of a future article.

Note also that Bostridge’s three Schubert song cycles, recorded with pianists Mitsuko Ichida and Leif Ove Andsnes, will be released in a bargain set in January. This set also includes a filmed version of Winterreise that Bostridge made some years ago; this is not a recital, but a somewhat theatricalized film of the songs. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

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.com, 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.com, 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.com, 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.

Authentic Schubert Piano Recordings

While “authentic” piano recordings of Romantic composers are not very common, there are a handful of musicians who have recorded these works on the fortepiano, or the instrument of the time of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. The best-known performer is probably Roland Brautigam, who has recorded complete sets of music, for the Swedish label Bis, by Haydn (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) and Mozart (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) . Brautigam is currently completing a cycle of Beethoven’s solo piano works – the latest release in this series is dedication to variations (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) .

While Brautigam records exhaustive sets, other performers record some of this piano repertoire on fortepiano. Andreas Staier, who recently released a recording of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations on fortepiano (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), has never recorded “cycles” of any composer’s works, but flits around from one composer to another.

But these pianists tend to neglect Franz Schubert. Now that Brautigam is reaching the end of his Beethoven cycle, I hope that he will record Schubert’s many wonderful piano works.

But in the meantime, there is an excellent series of recordings of Schubert’s piano sonatas by Paul Badura-Skoda. This pianist recorded all of Schubert’s piano sonatas on three three-disc sets for the Arcana label, that were recently bundled into a box set (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). As with the other composers cited above, the fortepiano brings the listener back to the instrument that the composer used when writing the music. (Or, in the case of Mozart and Haydn, some of their music was originally composed for harpsichord.) The sound is more intimate and the sustain shorter than a modern piano. But when you consider the dynamics, the attack and the sustain, these composers wrote music for those characteristics, not for those of today’s Steinway or Bösendorfer.

And in 2013, Badura-Skoda released a two-disc set of Schubert recordings, which includes three versions of Schubert’s final piano sonata D. 960 played on three different pianos: an 1826 Graf fortepiano, a 1923 Bösendorfer, and a 2004 Steinway grand. Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

Unfortunately, other recordings that Badura-Skoda made for the Astrée label, of the Impromptus, the Moments Musicaux and the Wanderer Fantasie, are out of print, and are very expensive. One can hope that these will be brought back into print someday.

But I also hope that Brautigam will start recording Schubert. He is a sensitive musician, and his recordings of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven are excellent. I love listening to music of this period on original instruments. If you haven’t done so, I strongly recommend some of these recordings by Brautigam and Badura-Skoda.

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…