Ever since Beethoven and Schubert turned the humble song into an art form to be reckoned with, our concert halls have been filled with masterpieces for voice and piano. From the 17-year-old Schubert's Gretchen am Spinnrade to Schumann's miraculous Dichterliebe, Romantic songs and song-cycles lie at the heart of today's classical music repertoire. But with so many to choose from – Schubert alone wrote over 600 songs – there are bound to be pieces that rarely get their moment in the spotlight. So, inspired by bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff's new BBC Four documentary exploring the art of German song, we've been talking to four leading singers about the songs they think should be better known.

Soprano Ailish Tynan – Schubert's Wandrers Nachtlied II D768

Of all the composers, Schubert has the greatest ability to capture pure musical perfection in the space of one little page. One of his greatest examples of this is Wandrers Nachtlied II, D768. It takes you on a spiritual journey of tranquility, emotional fulfilment and exquisite musicality. For these reasons it's one I'd love to hear performed more often.

Tenor James Gilchrist – Loewe's Erlkönig & Schubert's Einsamkeit, D620

We all know Schubert’s Erlkönig. Loewe’s Erlkönig is just as good. The characterisation of each voice is perfectly judged, from the terror-filled utterances of the child to the seductive lines of the monster. The father’s lines seem to get less and less sure of themselves as the work goes on, which is a masterstroke from the setter, as the tension pulling us forward is ever greater. And the end is perfectly judged, with harmony, rhythm and pitch all seeming effortlessly to come together to plunge us into the abyss. Brilliant.

While I’m with Loewe, of course, I should mention Über allen Gipfeln ist ruh, but you did say only one.... but can I also choose Schubert's Einsamkeit? It's an early Schubert song from 1818. To hear this song and think of the movement from Winterreise with the same title lets you think about the 10 short years that were Schubert’s whole working life. He was justly proud of it. It’s a long piece – maybe 25 minutes – setting text by Mayrhofer.

It’s really Schubert’s first song cycle, but for some reason it seems to be rarely heard. It’s absolutely magnificent, though, and is a joy to perform. Everything is in it: joy, love, rejection, misery, fun, war, horror. The protagonist wanders from scene to scene, briefly engaging with each. But never is that engagement half-hearted, he always immerses himself heart and soul into each mode of living. If you see a performance advertised, I’d really recommend trying to get there.

Soprano Mary Bevan – Chabrier's L'invitation au Voyage

Baudelaire's L'Invitation au Voyage is a text well known to lovers of French poetry and song, and was made more famous by Henri Duparc's wonderful setting written in c1870. At around the same time Emmanuel Chabrier also set this poem to music, but sadly his work was somewhat overshadowed by Duparc's, whose setting is said to be definitive of the form of French mélodie itself.

When I first performed the Chabrier, rather than finding it inferior to the more famous setting, I found it refreshing, expressive and charming. The rare inclusion of a bassoon obbligato and its unusual length (around 9 minutes) makes it more of a scène chantée (as it was billed at its only recorded performance in Chabrier's lifetime in 1874). The song takes unusual twists and turns and the vocal range is large, giving opportunities for some real Romantic singing and playing. This gives the listener a fresh insight into Baudelaire's words and we are taken to an entirely different place than in Duparc's setting; a place that in my opinion is no less 'luxe, calme et volupté'!

Baritone Benjamin Appl – Schubert's Die Mutter Erde, D788

One day, while rehearsing for a recital at the house of the brilliant Graham Johnson, we found ourselves discussing pieces which could be performed as encores. Suddenly, Graham mentioned Schubert’s Die Mutter Erde: a setting of a very touching poem by Stolberg. The text itself is about the acceptance of death; that in our own death and burial, Mother Earth gathers us all into her lap, where we should not fear to rest.

Schubert’s creation is a true masterpiece with the most wonderful music, made especially poignant by the context of the growing realisation of his own mortality as syphilis took hold, and set in stark contrast to his brother Ferdinand’s hypochondria and profound fear of death. For me this relatively little known song is a gem, and one of the most compelling and comforting songs ever written.

Bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff explores the art of German song in a BBC Four documentary: Becoming a Lied Singer: Thomas Quasthoff and the Art of German Song (7 July, 20:00 BST)


Rebecca Franks
Rebecca FranksJournalist, Critic and former Managing Editor of BBC Music Magazine

Rebecca Franks is the former Managing Editor of BBC Music Magazine and a regular classical music critic for The Times. She is currently writing her first children's book.