The recording of all 600-plus of Franz Schubert's songs was a labor of love for Hyperion Records and accompanist Graham Johnson. The project was characterized by a consistent level of top-notch performances by some of the premier Lied singers of our generation. While there might seem an economy in buying this complete 40-disc set, Beware. Inside the box you get 37 CDs of Schubert's songs for piano and voice presented in chronological order of composition, plus three CDs of songs by contemporary composers, often setting the same poems that Schubert used. Also included is a 400-page book of The Complete Song Texts, but here is the rub: the book lacks the liner notes from the individual CD booklets of the series.
Graham Johnson's original commentaries had insights into the genesis of the songs and the technical features fitting music to text. Where you got an exhaustive paragraph (or five) devoted to each song, here you get only a thumbnail biography of each year in Schubert's life followed by the texts of the songs for that year. The print is very small and the English translations are in an italicized font that makes the h's look like b's. Hyperion admits the difficulty of reprinting the original liner notes: "Several university presses have shown interest until they realised the scale of the project. We have worked out that the publication would run to nearly a million words--without the song texts. It would need at least two volumes. So we must see." In the meantime there is John Reed's Schubert Song Companion with commentaries on a majority of these songs.
There is a scholarly benefit to the chronological sequencing of the songs; you can trace Schubert's development from precocious teen to master songcrafter. There is some tediousness in the early material, however. Adrian Thompson tackles a lot of the awkward young works, and generally I would want to skip these when relistening to the set. Another quirk of the chronological presentation is that it divides Winterreise across two CDs. Schubert composed this work in two parts as he discovered Müller's poems, hence there are intervening songs that divide the opus. Frankly, I would have preferred Winterreise on one disc.
It is nice, in one way, that by reordering the series you get a continuously varied lineup of performers; sopranos followed by tenors followed by altos and baritones. If, however, you want to listen to everything recorded by Arleen Auger, her material is scattered across fifteen discs. There is something to be said for the focus of the original CDs--Goethe songs, strophic songs, water songs, night, nature, etc. Schubert had a vast output that lends itself to thematic programming. Graham Johnson himself frames it best in the notes to Volume 1:
"[The lesser-known songs] are, in their own shy way, treasures, but placed together in a large jewel-case, a boxed set, there is a danger that too many of them, one after the other, make a dull effect.... Should they not be displayed a few at a time where the famous items of the collection throw light on, rather than show up, their humbler brothers?"
There are omissions in the box set, not of actual songs but of individual performances. Janet Baker's rendition of "Der Pilgrim" D794 is left out to avoid duplication with Thomas Allen's. Three tracks from Brigitte Fassbaender's solo disc are replaced with takes by other singers. So on for Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Margaret Price and others.
If I had to do it all over again I would invest in each of the individual CDs of the series. If a book of the liner notes is ever published, that will be another chunk of money, diminishing the economy of the box set. For those of you interested in Schubert's chronological development as a song writer--get the original CDs, rip them as MP3s onto your computer, resequence them according to Hyperion's Web site and upload them onto your iPod.