Schubert: Various Lieder

COMPOSERS: Schubert
LABELS: (i) Tudor,(ii) and (iii) Naxos
ALBUM TITLE: (i) Goethe-Lieder; (ii) Poets of Sensibility, vol. 3; (iii) Poets of Sensibility, vol.4
WORKS: Various Lieder
PERFORMER: (i) Wolfgang Holzmair (baritone)Gérard Wyss (piano); (ii) Wolfgang Holzmair (baritone)Ulrich Eisenlohr (fortepiano);(iii) Birgid Steinberger (soprano)Wolfgang Holzmair (baritone)Ulrich Eisenlohr (fortepiano)
CATALOGUE NO: (i) 7110, (ii) 8.557568, (iii) 8.557569
Of the many ways of organising a song recital – one of the trickiest assignments in programming either a live concert or a CD that I can think of – one is to take a single composer and show him in relation to a poet whom he was especially drawn to, or to a type of poem that aroused his interest. The Tudor disc here takes the first course, not a difficult decision when the poet concerned is Goethe, the greatest figure in German literature and one with whom Schubert was contemporary. But as Wolfgang Holzmair, the singer, who also provides the copious notes, points out, the quality of these songs (and there are very many more to words by Goethe) varies sharply. Some of the longest ones are also among the weakest, strophic pieces that seem to last forever – and it hardly helps that the texts are provided only in German, without even a précis in English. Still, there are some great things here, and some interesting less great things: we get, for instance, the trio of the Harper’s Songs from Wilhelm Meister, not only in their final, sublime version, but also two of them in an earlier form. There is the staggering Prometheus, for which Holzmair’s voice is hardly huge enough, and the thrilling Erlkönig, which suits him perfectly. He has a beautiful, soft-grained voice, used with expressive but restrained power.

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The first Naxos disc is the third in a series devoted to poets who specialised in airing their sensitive souls. Or at least that is what the expression ‘Poets of Sensibility’ suggests. But in fact the songs come across, on the whole, as relatively bland, and without the fierce drama that we associate with Schubert at his greatest. Many of them have a cosy domesticity which was also an important element in his make-up but is hardly what ‘sensibility’ indicates. They are again an uneven bunch, with variety added in Volume 4 by alternating the soprano Birgid Steinberger with the baritone. She is a pleasing singer without having either a voice or personality of special distinction. There are certainly treasures and some songs that deserve to be better known. Naxos provides an extensive commentary, but texts in German and English are only available on their website. On both discs the accompaniments, by two different pianists, are distinguished. The sound of the fortepiano takes some getting used to, but after a time is neither distracting nor appealing. Michael Tanner