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Schubert's Friends and Contemporaries

Franz Joseph Haydn, Johann Friedrich Reichardt, Louise Reichardt, Antonio Salieri, Johan Rudolf Zumsteeg, Carl Friedrich Zelter, Adalbert Gyrowetz, Joseph Weigl, Franz Anton Schubert, Johann Michael Vogl, Ludwig von Beethoven, Johann Karl Unger, Vaclav Jan Krtitel Tomazek, Maximilian Eberwein, Moritz von Dietrichstein, Nikolaus yon Krufft, Ludwig Berger, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Sigismund Neukomm, Conradin Kreutzer, Louis Spohr, Stephan Franz, Carl Maria von Weber, August Heinrich von Weyrath, Simon Sechter, Gioacomo Meyerbeer, Gioacchino Rossini, Anselm Huittenbrenner, Carl Loewe, Jeanette Antonie Burde, Benedict Randhartinger, Karoline Unger-Sabatier, Franz Paul Lachner, Johann Vesque von Puttlinger, Fanny Mendelssohn, Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, Ferdinand Hiller, Franz Liszt, Carl Banck

The Hyperion Schubert Edition CDJ33051-3 [234 mins]

Yet again, Graham Johnson places us in his measureless debt, and so does Hyperion.

Schubert lovers may expect to approach this appendix to the Hyperion Complete Songs as an interesting academic historical byway, but it turns out to be far more than that.

If you are one of those who prefer to explore music you don't know, rather than the latest interpretative tweak on over-familiar canonic masterworks, then these three CDs will prove a veritable treasure trove. What a pity cameras weren't on hand to capture the scene one imagines, these five singers gathered around the piano as Graham Johnson turns over the manuscript pages to reveal settings of familiar verse that have not seen the light of day - as might have once happened with Schubert and his friends.... Probably the reality was much more prosaic in the planning and eventual recording of all these songs; most of them, I'd guess, for the first time, though we are not told so.

As always, in his notes Johnson gives you fresh angles to ponder. At the outset he reminds us that Schubert's Gretchen am Spinnrade, often heralded as the beginning of the lied, did not spring from nowhere, and indeed it is not reached until Volume 4 of the chronologically re-ordered bargain re-issue of Schubert The Complete Songs.

Johnson points out, without any condescension, the many virtues of these numerous composers from Banck and Bauernfeld to Zelter and Zumsteeg - the z's whose obscure names caused merriment to such eminent Schubertians of recent times as Gerald Moore and Eric Sams!

Just as we are learning from modern research how much Mozart owed to the many fine composers flourishing around him whilst he was learning his craft, so were many of these 19th C composers, newly brought back to life in sound, crucial to forming the Schubert we rightly love immeasurably.

I had wondered whether the slighter examples, many of them composed by amateurs for amateurs, would wilt under Graham Johnson's scrutiny and his Steinway piano, but given the result I waive that reservation. Each of these discs is a pleasure to hear and think about, and could make an absorbing live recital - even though it might decimate the paying audience in the prevailing fashion for masterpieces, preferably familiar ones?

As was the case with the Schubert The Complete Songs box, this set will reward fuller study at leisure, and I look forward to reading the thorough assessments by experts which will follow this brief welcome. Suffice it here, then, to confirm that all five singers - of them only Stella Doufexis was not known to me - are in fine voice and do the songs every justice.

If you feel deprived without a masterpiece, Vol 1 will bring you relief near the end with Mark Padmore's distinguished, and newly thought through, interpretation of Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte, which must rank amongst "the best", most especially for Grahame Johnson's subtlest inflections in the piano part, balanced a little forward, quite appropriately for the completion of this project of which he was the driving force.

And it sounds quite different in this context, with Johnson telling us how its publication in 1816 must have struck Schubert as "a big surprise, the eruption of a volcano at the least expected time" - two years before poor Schubert himself achieved modest publication, the rest of his career engaged in planning a fitting response to An die ferne Geliebte with his own solutions to "the problem of the song cycle".

This is another essential purchase; its presentation is fine if you can cope with small print - Graham Johnson always writes a lot of words - but, if a small quibble is in order, it is a pity that Hyperion still espouses the rather old-fashioned jewel case packaging; three separate quite thick booklets crammed with the three CDs into one plastic box, mine a little broken before it reached me.


© Peter Grahame Woolf