on 7 September 2000
In his fascinating notes, Graham Johnson remarks at one point, "...who can buck the market?" How true - but what a pity that he had to follow such a market trend as having "Three Tenors" for this recording, which is a disappointing one in some ways. He got it absolutely right in his choices of Ian Bostridge for "Schöne Müllerin" and Matthias Goerne for "Winterreise," but on the present disc only John Mark Ainsley really stands comparison with the best - Michael Schade has a pleasant voice of no special distinction, but of course he sure is one hunky guy - that market again - and Anthony Rolfe Johnson, though a wonderful communicator in recital and once a glorious singer on disc, sounds simply past it, and is not helped by his fluty pronunciation in which any word with an "e" in it seems to have an extra one or two added.
Johnson explains that he wanted "Schwanengesang" to be performed by two different singers yet of the same tessitura, so that there would be no outright dislocation. Fair enough, but, given that the "cycle" has to be split up, I think I would have preferred a totally different voice for the Heine settings, a singer with a richer timbre, more dramatic power and certainly better German than that of ARJ - Goerne springs to mind, although one supposes that his contract with Decca precludes such excursions.
The chief pleasures on this recording are supplied by Ainsley, yet even he sounds, at times, on the subdued side. Is "Abschied" really such a wistful, restrained song as he and Johnson perform it? It is very beautifully sung indeed, rather on the slow side but with admirable diction and attention to words - this is a tenor who really loves the sound of his own voice, as well he might, and he also seems to savour every syllable - "Ade, liebe Sonne so gehst du zur Ruh' is exquisitely done, as is the melancholy ending.
"Liebesbotschaft" also has real beauty and poise - "Wiege das Liebchen in Schlummer ein" is sung with melting tenderness, and the testing "Bächlein, erquicke mit kühlender Flut" is so idiomatically enunciated that it sounds as though it is being sung by a native German speaker for whom the poems have real meaning.
He is at his best in "Ständchen" where his lovely timbre, fluid legato and perfect German are again fully in evidence. He is conscious of all who have gone before him with this well-worn song, but as with his "An Silvia" on volume 26, both he and Johnson perform it as though they are the first to do so. Johnson remarks that at the phrase "Liebchen, komm' zu mir!" - "...we can almost feel the singer's tenderness," and Ainsley's sensitive and sensuous performance justifies such a remark. The final lines, with their passionate pleading, are perfectly judged, sung with real fervour yet without going into recitalese - a fine example of Ainsley's art, which so often consists in wringing our hearts without wringing his hands.
As for the Heine settings and "Die Taubenpost," I found them mostly disappointing, occasionally irritating. I felt that a certain sense of power in reserve was lacking, and that only in "Das Fischermädchen" did ARJ show what he really could do. "Taubenpost" is a sad disappointment; sung mostly on one level, he makes little of such moments as the heart-rending last line, and his approximately crooned German is nothing short of annoying - as well as hardly even touching on the grace notes before "Heimlich hinein." Surely this supreme example of Schubert's music needs deeply fervent, intensely beautiful singing (in convincing German) rather than just delicate, pinkie-crooking recitalling?
Modified rapture, then, for this final instalment in the series. To me, it cannot stand with the supreme achievements of volumes 20, 24, 25 (Schöne Müllerin), 26,27,28 and 30 (Winterreise) but then in such a huge undertaking, total uniformity of excellence is too much to ask. Individual taste will always supervene in such matters; I cannot imagine finer performances than, say, Christine Schäfer's of "Der Musensohn" (28) or Matthias Goerne's of "Frühlingstraum" (30) or "Fulle der Liebe," (27) but there are many other beloved Schubert songs where I would not go to the Hyperion edition - "Vor Meiner Wiege" and "Fühlingsglaube" spring to mind - ARJ and Marjana Lipovesek being no match for Fischer-Dieskau here.
No music lover should be without the songs on this disc, especially since it includes the rarely heard but wonderful "Auf Dem Strom," (superb horn playing by David Pyatt) and I would buy it for that and for the beautiful singing of the Rellstab songs, not to mention Johnson's indispensable notes. For the Heine settings and "Taubenpost," it's back to Fischer-Dieskau for me, at least until Matthias Goerne gets around to recording them.