The 37 CDs that comprise “The Hyperion Schubert Edition”
contain all of Franz Schubert’s songs. It’s a set that belongs in
any serious music library, for a number of reasons. First, it is
the only collection containing everything that Schubert
(1797-1828) wrote for the voice with piano accompaniment,
as well as a couple of choral items which were composed
without accompaniment. Included in addition to the solo
songs (Lieder) are ensemble and parts songs for various
numbers of singers. Compositional fragments in various stages
of completion and many alternative settings are also
featured, many of which are recorded here for the first time.
The “bonuses,” if you will, include an occasional additional
rendition of a song performed by a different voice type.
There are 733 different “works,” ranging in length from a
fragment of 27 seconds to a 27-minute ballad. Schubert
composed more than a few of these ballads, in the early
part of his career.
Speaking of compositional careers, Schubert’s was amazingly
short, lasting a mere 18 years or so. This is all the more
incredible, when you consider all of his high quality
compositions in other genres which are not a part of this
set, i.e., operas, chamber music, symphonies, solo and
four-hand piano music, and sacred music. It therefore goes
without saying that Schubert composed very rapidly. How
else could he write all of this music? Apparently, he
composed eight of these songs in just one day, during 1815!
This brings me to the second reason this set merits inclusion
in any serious music library, public or private, and that
is the scholarship of Graham Johnson (1950 – ) who served
as accompanist and coordinator of this project. Not only was
Johnson a very capable pianist, but also the author of 37
booklets of accompanying liner notes. These in-depth and
insightful guides contain essays which exceed expectations
of scholarship, on every level. Each booklet also includes the
texts and translations provided by musicologist and
broadcaster, Richard Wigmore.
Johnson provides a detailed analysis of each song covering
all aspects of the piece, including rhythm, melody, harmony,
and numerous scholarly digressions derived from intimate
familiarity with his subject. We are given a bird’s eye view
of Schubert’s life, along with a rare opportunity to explore
the lives of the poets whose works he set to music, the
political climate under which he worked, and many other
aspects of his short life. For example, the booklets
accompanying Volumes 37 and 38 each exceed 100 pages!
This music is in good hands and reading these booklets
was like taking a Schubert seminar.
This 12-year labor of love was recorded from 1987 through
1999, and the first several discs tend to feature either a
certain theme, the works of a particular poet, or a specific year
of Schubert’s life. Some of the singers are in the twilight of
their careers, such as Dame Janet Baker (1933 – ) and
Elly Ameling (1933 – ). Other performances are from up and
coming stars, such as Ian Bostridge (1964 – ),
Christine Schäfer (1965 – ) and Matthias Goerne (1967 – ).
The myriad list of established artists goes on and on, and
includes Sir Thomas Allen (1944 – ), Thomas Hampson (1955 – ),
Brigitte Fassbaender (1939 – ), Lucia Popp (1939-1993),
Arleen Auger (1939-1993), Peter Schreier (1935 – ),
Philip Langridge (1939-2010), and Felicity Lott (1947 – ).
Some poems by Wilhelm Müller (1794-1827) were set to
music in Schubert’s 1825 song cycle, “Die schöne Müllerin,”
which was sung by Ian Bostridge. The cycle was interspersed
with spoken narrative from other Müller poems, and
performed by none other than Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
Naturally, there are standout performances in a project of
this size, while others may seem less successful. This is to
be expected, as the varied sounds and intimacy conveyed by
the human voice will elicit different musical effects and
listener reactions. No matter! I welcome the variety here,
and applaud Johnson’s efforts to pair each song with who
he considers to be an appropriate interpreter.
In short, I believe that this undertaking was an effort to
maintain the highest standards on all fronts, and it was
achieved in spades. Graham Johnson has since given
similar treatment to various other composers of song,
released under the Hyperion label. Can you say, “Knighthood?”
Others have been knighted for less!