Schubert revisited 4839758

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Schubert Revisited
Orchestrations by Alexander Schmalcz
Matthias Goerne (baritone)
Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen
rec. 2019, Kammer-Philharmonie, Bremen
German texts & English translations included
Deutsche Grammophon 483 9758 [75]

The baritone Matthias Goerne is one of the most celebrated Lieder singers currently before the public. His extensive discography includes a number of Schubert discs – I have some of them in my own collection – but in appraising this new album I’ve studiously avoided listening to any of them or, indeed, listening to any of the 19 songs included here in performances by any other singer. That’s because Goerne here offers the songs with new orchestral accompaniments arranged by Alexander Schmalcz and I wanted to experience these versions with my ears as fresh as possible. That said, it’s impossible to get the piano accompaniment to well-known songs such as Erlkönig completely out of my head.

It should be noted straightaway that Alexander Schmalcz has approached the task of orchestrating these songs from a significant background as a pianist and as a recital partner of a number of leading singers. Matthias Goerne is one of his regular and longstanding collaborators. I know of at least one CD that they’ve made together: Volume 5 (‘Nacht und Träume’) of Goerne’s Schubert series for Harmonia Mundi (HMC902063). It is worth quoting a comment that Schmalcz makes in the booklet about his approach to scoring these songs: “I have added nothing. Sometimes I fill out the voices by doubling the octave, for example. Or I write sustained chords in the orchestra in order to simulate the sound-surfaces that are the result of the use of the sustaining pedal on the piano. But my goal is to be as original as possible.”

The performances can fairly be described as collegiate, I think. No conductor was involved. Instead, Goerne tells us, he “stood where the conductor would normally stand and sang to the orchestra, while also conducting with the help of the orchestra’s leader, Florian Donderer”.

Earlier, I mentioned Erlkönig; so let’s start there. One of the most compelling features of this song is the furious, driving piano accompaniment and I feared I might miss that. Such fears proved groundless. The strings of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen introduce the music with a ferocious attack – I suspect they are playing sul ponticello – while the double basses thunder what is usually the piano’s left-hand part; it’s hair-raising. This song involves three characters and singers will frequently use three different voices to differentiate. I can’t recall hearing Goerne sing the song with piano accompaniment, so I don’t know if that’s something he usually does. He doesn’t really need to do so on this occasion – though he deploys suitable tonal variety – because Schmalcz uses varied orchestral colourings to do the same job. I especially like the sinisterly playful woodwinds that are used initially to accompany the words of the Erl-king, as he tries to deceive the child. As the story becomes more desperate, trumpets and timpani are introduced. I think the orchestration of this song is perceptively done in such a way as to enhance the drama in a vivid fashion.

I’ve referenced the way in which Alexander Schmalcz uses different orchestral colours in Erlkönig; in fact, that’s a hallmark of this whole project. We encounter it elsewhere; in Schäfers Klagelied, for instance when the instrumentation helps the singer to tell the story in a way that, perhaps, even the most skilled pianist wouldn’t be able to do. I noted this feature especially in the third and fourth stanzas of the poem and I also enjoyed the lovely use of woodwinds in the second stanza. The very next song. Ganymed sounds absolutely charming in its orchestral guise: there’s a winning lightness in the scoring which Goerne matches in his delivery of the vocal line; here, singer and orchestra invest the music with just the right degree of eagerness.

Intelligent programming means that the light-touch approach which Ganymed invites is followed by two songs which, of necessity, require darker hues in both the accompaniment and the singing. Both Fahrt zum Hades, and Schatzgräbers Begehr come across very convincingly. In the latter Goerne’s singing is very powerful at first, relaxing – if that is the right word – into a smoother legato in the second half of the song where the gravedigger sings acceptingly of his own mortality. There is, of course, darkness also in Der Tod und das Mädchen. It’s perhaps predictable that Schmalcz should employ the brass instruments for the solemn chords that are associated with the voice of Death; but just because it’s predictable that doesn’t mean that the scoring is anything other than effective.

I greatly admired Grenzen der Menschheit. The imposing brass introduction features, for the only time in these orchestrations, I think, the extra sonority of a tuba; that touch adds to the gravitas. Goethe’s poem is a piece of noble rhetoric and Matthias Goerne gives a commanding account of Schubert’s musical response. It’s a big song and Goerne makes us fully aware of its import; so, too, does the orchestration.

A little later, in Das Heimweh, we have another excellent example of Schmalcz’s perceptive approach to orchestration. In this song the character of Schubert’s music changes frequently, and every time it does the scoring alters in what seems to me to be an entirely appropriate illustrative fashion. That’s followed by Pilgerweise where I love the easeful way in which Goerne spins out the long vocal lines. The scoring is a delight too, in particular the passages that feature captivating woodwind lines which bring to mind Schubert’s writing in his early symphonies. This winning performance is full of grace; singer and players put a real spring into the music. In Abendstern there is much to admire, not least Goerne’s lovely singing in his upper register. Twice in the song we hear the Star speak and on both occasions a flute doubles the vocal line to wonderful effect.

One of my favourites is Alinde. For a start, the performance has a beguiling lilt to it. Furthermore, what delights the listener as much as Goerne’s singing is the beautifully imagined writing for the orchestra, especially the charming woodwind writing, led by a perky, bucolic clarinet. Goerne really draws us into the song and at every step along the way the orchestration supports and enhances his efforts. Des Fischers Liebesglück is another conspicuous success. The singing is compelling and the orchestration is subtle. In particular, the song is peppered with little interludes between verses. Each of these interludes is differently – and resourcefully – scored with a particular instrument given the melodic line; the instrument in question then has a degree of prominence in the following stanza before the player gives way to a colleague for the next interlude.

Only once in this whole enterprise did I feel that the scoring was overdone. In An Sylvia the piano left-hand part is played by the double basses (possibly doubled by the cellos). I think the bass line is too heavy here, though perhaps that’s owing to the way in which Schmalcz’s scoring has been delivered on this occasion. Happily, if that’s a miscalculation then it’s not repeated elsewhere.

I honestly didn’t know what to expect when I received this album. Of course, orchestrating Schubert songs is nothing new – as we’re reminded in the booklet, Berlioz, Reger, Liszt and Webern are among those who have tried their hand. I feel, though, that Alexander Schmalcz’s efforts are as successful as any I’ve heard – and rather more successful than some. I think it helps enormously that he knows Schubert’s songs from the inside as a recital partner, but even that advantage would have been diminished had he not proved so adept and perceptive in his use of the orchestral palette. I don’t know precisely what orchestral forces are used – the Bärenreiter website didn’t provide all the information I looked for – and the orchestral roster differs between songs, but the scoring is never overdone. Woodwind are used to excellent effect (I love the doleful cor anglais in the second of the Gesänge des Harfners); the use of brass, including horns, is retrained; timpani are occasionally involved – in Erlkönig, for instance – but no other percussion puts in an appearance; and, of course, strings play a key role throughout. I think Schmalcz has been consistently successful in his work and, crucially, his orchestrations colour the songs without overwhelming them. The effect is akin to the most successful attempts one has seen to apply tasteful colouration to old black-and-white photographs, shedding new light on the images. The playing of the orchestra is consistently excellent.

Inevitably, I’ve focussed on the orchestrations in this review, but I hope I’ve said sufficient about the singing of Matthias Goerne to make it clear that he is on top form throughout this album.

The recorded sound is very good. We hear Goerne very clearly but the engineers also allow us to experience all the felicities of the scoring. One thing that I found just slightly disconcerting, though, was that particularly when I listened through headphones Goerne’s voice often moved slightly into either the right-hand or left-hand channel. I can only conclude that he was moving slightly as he sang and that the microphones have picked this up. It’s mildly disconcerting but not a critical distraction.

I fond this a most enlightening CD. My enjoyment was enhanced because Schmalcz and Goerne have resisted the temptation simply to present a roll call of Schubert’s most popular Lieder. The orchestrations have been published by Bärenreiter and I hope this will lead to other singers taking them up. Just as much, I hope that Alexander Schmalcz will be tempted to tackle some more of Schubert’s songs and cast additional light on them. I hope those who love Schubert’s songs in their familiar piano versions will be tempted to listen to this album. It may also provide a way into the repertoire for listeners who do not normally listen to art song: one of my colleagues, who is not normally attracted to the genre, remarked to me, after hearing the disc, that he had found it opened up the songs for him.

A revelatory album.

John Quinn

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An Sylvia, op.106 no.4 D891
Schäfers Klagelied, op.3 no.1 D121
Ganymed, D544 op.19 no.3
Fahrt zum Hades, D526
Schatzgräbers Begehr, D761
Der Tod und das Mädchen, D531 op.7 no.3
Erlkönig, op.1 D328
Wandrers Nachtlied I ‘Der du von dem Himmel bist’, D224
Grenzen der Menschheit, D716
Gesänge des Harfners, D478
Das Heimweh, D851
Pilgerweise, D789
Abendstern, D806
Alinde, D904
Stimme der Liebe, D412
Des Fischers Liebesglück, D933
An die Entfernte, D765