, May 2008
"Aside from freshness of repertory, the disc offers further perspective on Schubert's versatility in dealing with different poets"
Following the Bärenreiter New Schubert Edition, and Schubert's own intention (first hatched in 1816) to have his songs published in orderly fashion, Naxos this year is completing a series of CDs with all the composer's songs — more than 700 of them! Texts for the songs aren't included, but there's a website from which to print them.
Schubert wanted his songs grouped according to the various poets. As the Naxos project director, pianist Ulrich Eisenlohr, points out, "Schubert set the poetry of over 115 writers … from Classical Greece, the Middle Ages and Renaissance, from eighteenth-century German authors, early Romantics, Biedermeier poets, his own contemporaries, and of course finally poems by Heinrich Heine, although sadly the two never met." Judged by this CD, Eisenlohr is not only an organizer after Schubert's own heart, he's also an artistic director who knows how to match the right voice to the material. As accompanist, he plays with as fine an appreciation for detail as for rhythm and form.
The Naxos disc starts with nine lieder to words by the "rather conventional" Theodor Körner (1791–1813). Love is the main theme, and in no great depth: Schubert chose mostly parlor serenades. Yet in the opening paean to nature, seen from a mountaintop, the composer finds interesting piano figurations to support a hymnlike purity of line. As the serenades follow, sameness flattens the landscape, alleviated by touches that could escape casual listening but are pointed out by Eisenlohr's thoughtful liner notes.
Either these songs were written with a lyric tenor in mind, or Markus Schäfer quickly convinces us they were. His light, discreetly nimble voice caresses a phrase with delicately modulated dynamics, seeming to wrap flexibly around a phrase from both ends and lift it gently, delivering his words with the clarity of speech. As the program moves on to other poets — Schütz, Kind, Gerstenberg, Rückert, Winkler, Schlegel, even a German translation of Colley Cibber's "The Blind Boy" — the subject matter turns deeper, the versification less mannered, and the music follows suit.
The sheer taste of Schäfer's singing, and its partnership with Eisenlohr's playing, give this recital a quiet authenticity. Within the emotional confines of Körner's "Sehnsucht der Liebe," for example, every flicker of contrast between longing (rather urgent) and nature's peace (calm, reflective) is caught, as the poet looks for equipoise between them. The musical flow breathes. In Körner's "Das war ich," about a dream, the voice floats on the music, held up and moved by it, with no sense of weight or pressure — almost like reading the poem aloud to oneself. Later, with the cheerfully animated accompaniment to "Hänflings Liebeswerbung" (Kind) and the catchy pattern of "Hippolits Lied" (Gerstenberg), the pianist has a chance to expand his expressive palette, while in "Der blinde Knabe" (Cibber) and "Die gefangenen Sänger" (Schlegel) the tenor expands to touch on poignancy and irony, respectively.
This CD isn't for lovers of name-brand Schubert songs; it's for the curious, and it should help singers find something unfamiliar to spice their programs. Aside from freshness of repertory, the disc offers further perspective on Schubert's versatility in dealing with different poets. However confined their sensibility, the composer responded to them as spontaneously, inquisitively and subtly in music as he might have done in conversation.