Schubert: Psalms and Partsongs

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COMPOSERS: Schubert
LABELS: Collins
WORKS: Psalms and Partsongs
PERFORMER: BBC Singers/Jane Glover; Susan Tomes (piano), members of City of London Sinfonia
CATALOGUE NO: 14992
Vocal chamber music is at the very heart of Schubert’s writing. Yet the quartets and partsongs into which he poured his musical soul and skills still lie, unfairly, in the shadow of his instrumental chamber works. So all these discs are welcome, even if some are more welcome than others…

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The BBC Singers, conducted by Jane Glover, offer a cannily chosen cross-section. Here are psalms for student choirs, one for a synagogue (wonderfully, in its original Hebrew); quartets for garden parties, ensembles for private concerts. There is the balm of Psalm 23 for women’s voices and piano (Susan Tomes’s playing is delicious throughout); the echoing, horn-accompanied ‘Nachtgesang im Walde’; the extraordinary late, orchestra-accompanied ‘Gesang der Geister iiber den Wassern’; and the exquisite nocturne, ‘Nachthelle’ — though Schubert’s ubiquitous high tenor writing finds less than beautiful advocacy here.

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Just one programming overlap in Die Singphoniker’s male-voice selection -and it reveals all. The unaccompanied ‘Sehnsucht’ replaces the BBC’s generalised, hushed ‘choral’ sound with a quite thrilling sense of intimate, wine-y musical camaraderie, live with nuances of phrasing and accenting which are the result of close study of the vocal and instrumental techniques of Schubert’s time, and meticulous recording. Even the tiniest, earliest Schiller setting in this second volume of CPO’s Complete Partsongs is totally beguiling. In cruel contrast, the New York Vocal Arts Ensemble make a meagre offering: just ten songs, no texts, lazy enunciation and disappointingly unstylish singing. Hilary Finch