Schubert: A Goethe Schubertiad. Hyperion Edition no. 24
No praise can be too high for the singing and playing on this disc, featuring four of today's finest singers in a beautifully balanced selection of Schubert's settings of the greatest of the poets by whose words he was inspired.
It begins with "Schäfers Klagelied," given a wonderfully dramatic and sensitive performance by John Mark Ainsley; he is exquisitely detailed without ever going too far, and his feeling for language, the savouring of certain words, is remarkable - listen, for example, to the phrase "die ganze Wiese so voll" in which the last word is dwelt upon just slightly longer and given a sense of the ache behind it. The whole performance is beautifully judged, with the quiet heartbreak of the first and final sections contrasting with the more dramatic middle. The poem is slight enough, but it is sufficient material for Schubert to enchant us, and I cannot think of a finer performance of any of his Lieder - singing such as this is simply incomparable.
Where does one go, after that? Just about anywhere on this disc, is the answer - perhaps Christine Schäfer's rapt performance of the neglected masterpiece "Der Gott und die Bajadere," which tells the story of the dancing girl who spends one "sweet night" with a visitant god who dies in her bed - the girl then tries to throw herself upon his funeral pyre but is given short shrift by the priests who tell her that only a wife may do this - however, she ignores them and does it anyway, whereupon the God and the girl's spirit are seen ascending to heaven. Schäfer's lovely, burnished tone, the fervour of her singing and her fascinating sense of the language make just about every other soprano sound thin in timbre and generalized in interpretation.
Elsewhere, Michael George gives a noble, stirring account of the wonderful "Geistes - Gruss" with Graham Johnson providing a poetic postlude, and Simon Keenlyside an expertly judged account of the touching "Der Goldschmiedsgesell" in which he evokes to perfection the simple loving nature of the apprentice.
Probably the best - known song on this disc is "Erlkönig," and the performance here can stand comparison with the best. Ainsley takes the part of the narrator and Erl - King, Schäfer the child and George the father, and their singing makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up - as for Johnson's playing, it equals that of Gerald Moore - there is no higher praise. Schäfer is touchingly innocent and fearful as the child, George wonderfully paternal and mellifluous as the father - especially fine is his "Es scheinen die alten Weiden so grau." Ainsley's impersonation of the gruesome spirit king is truly frightening - his melismas on the words "spiel" and "singen" cannot fail to induce shivers of dread, and his narration is wonderfully evocative - even words such as "Kind" and "warm" are tasted to the full, the dramatic "grausets" is properly chilling, and the all - important final line is truly heart - rending.
This is one of the very best of this wondrous series, and the selections above can only give a hint of its delights.