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Schubert cycles CC72665
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Franz SCHUBERT [1797-1828]
Die schöne Müllerin, D.795 (1823) [61:39]
Herbst, D. 945 (1828) [03:19]
Schwanengesang, D.957 (1828) [45:01]
Die Taubenpost, D.965 A (1828) [3:22]
Sehnsucht, D.879 (1826) [2:21]
Am Fenster, D.878 (1826) [3:45]
Bei dir allein, D.866 (1826) [1:55]
Der Wanderer an den Mond, D.870 (1826) [2:17]
Das Zügenglöcklein, D.871 (1826) [4:13]
Im Freien, D.880 (1826) [4:54]
Winterreise, Op 89, D.911 (1828) [70:43]
Christoph Prégardien (tenor)
Michael Gees (piano)
Andreas Staier (fortepiano)
rec. 2007-12, Galaxy Studios, Mol, Belgium
CHALLENGE CLASSICS CC72665 [3 CDs: 204:10]

A song cycle is a series of related poems set to music by a composer. While Beethoven is frequently credited with composing the first song cycle, the form did not catch fire until Franz Schubert produced his three monumental cycles a few years later. This set of 3 CDs (roughly one per cycle) collects esteemed tenor Christoph Prégardien’s previously-released renditions of these cycles in a budget package that does not disappoint.

The first disc is devoted to Schubert’s first cycle, Die schöne Müllerin (The Miller’s Beautiful Daughter), from 1823, on poems by Wilhelm Müller. This set tells the story of a young miller who comes to mill on a brook, where the title character lives with her father. The young man immediately falls in love, agonizes over her as she turns her attentions to a wandering hunter, and eventually falls into despair.

Prégardien provides a suitably emotional performance, and Michael Gees does a fine job of accompanying as a full equal as the story develops. The piano horn motifs are gentle, emphasizing the appeal of the young hunter to the maiden. In the fifth song, Am Feierabend, Romanticism at times edges into the obsessive. Though the young miller barely knows the title character, he declares, “My heart is yours, and thus it will remain forever.” Prégardien does a particularly fine job with Morgengruß, with small, barely perceptible swells in certain words that subtly shift the emphasis. The sixteenth song, Die liebe Farbe, is suitably morose, with an accompaniment that largely consists of a repeated drone F-sharp, anticipating a similar moment by Chopin in his Prelude Op 28/15 in D-flat.

The second disc is largely devoted to Schwanengesang (Swan Song), composed on poems by Ludwig Rellstab and Heinrich Heine. Whether Schubert actually intended these settings to be a song cycle is a matter of some controversy. Schubert wrote them all out in a single sitting, but appears to have offered them to publishers as two separate smaller cycles. On the composer’s death, his enterprising publisher united them into one and they have remained thus ever since, together with the unrelated Die Taubenpost, D.965 A, the setting of a poem by Johann Gabriel Seidl. In any event, these are amongst the very last of Schubert’s many song settings, with common themes of love and disappointment, longing and absence.

Particularly lovely are the renderings of the fourth song, Ständchen (Serenade), perhaps best known in Liszt’s transcription for piano, and the jaunty farewell of Abschied. In contrast, In der Ferne provides a heartbreaking tale of loss and homesickness. Der Atlas offers the dramatic imagery of the hero bearing the pain of the world like Atlas. Der Doppelgänger is given a grim reading, full of foreboding. Andreas Staier plays a fortepiano that sounds to my ear quite similar to a modern piano; had the notes not indicated it was an historic instrument, I doubt I would have guessed it.

The final CD is devoted to Schubert’s sprawling Winterreise. This tale of a spurned lover, journeying through the grey of winter as he tries to forget his beloved, is brought forth by Prégardien in an appropriately heart-on-the-sleeve manner. He and Gees make the most of the Romantic longings and dramatic despair.

Highlights of this recording are a quite lovely Der Lindenbaum, with a powerful pianistic evocation of the winter wind. In Wasserflut we get a fine piece of careful interaction between the voice and piano, as they jointly become more impassioned. Frühlingstraum, which too often is treated lightly or like an intermission, here is quite powerful, and the final song, Der Leiermann, is very haunting.

Prégardien provides a notably fine and sensitive performance throughout; he carefully judges exactly how much emphasis to give every syllable, with often tiny inflections in his voice on a single note. He plainly has thought about these lyrics a great deal. His voice on these songs is more full-bodied than the reedy sound of Peter Pears. Like Hans Hotter, he is not afraid of the pure Romanticism and gives the same kind of depth in a higher voice. I find Prégardien’s Winterreise quite preferable to Jonas Kaufmann’s rather head-focused performance. Peter Schreier is another voice that I find comparable to Prégardien, though the latter has the advantage of modern recording technology.

I was quite pleased overall with the recording quality, which offers excellent dynamic range and very nice immediacy of sound. The booklet includes the German lyrics, but no translations or notes. A 54-page digital booklet on Challenge’s website in PDF format includes some moderately helpful notes together with English translations of the lyrics side-by-side with the German text.

Mark S. Zimmer

Previous review: Göran Forsling

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