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ON THE RECORD

Singing a Song of Schubert

August 11, 1996|Herbert Glass | Herbert Glass is a regular contributor to Calendar

The classical compact disc began to achieve its maturity in 1984 when, contrary to all predictions (including mine), the new format first went beyond what it was ostensibly intended to do: perpetuate the latest technology and the most popular artists, in the service of the classical Top 40.

That year saw the issuance in CD form of the celebrated 1952 mono edition of Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde," recorded in Vienna under Bruno Walter. Its success with the buying public opened the door, if not precisely the floodgates, to other items on the cognoscenti's wish lists, including the Heifetz, Furtwangler and Toscanini legacies, Rachmaninoff playing his own concertos, Wagner by Flagstad and Melchior, the Callas-La Scala "Tosca." Conspicuously absent, however, was the 1945 recording of Schubert's song cycle "Die schone Mullerin" by Danish tenor Aksel Schiotz (1906-1975), the one lieder entry inevitably included on the all-time-best lists.

It has now finally appeared on CD but not on EMI, which has spent vast amounts of money releasing and re-releasing other more ephemeral, more costly stuff in recent years. The label could have reissued the Schiotz "Mullerin" for peanuts. But, no, the rights were acquired by Preiser Records (90293), a Vienna-based reissue label distributed in the U.S. by Koch.

Schiotz's performance, with Gerald Moore as the most unfussily sympathetic and supportive of piano accompanists, only grows in stature with the passing of time and the multiplication of competition. Schiotz's warm, perfectly tuned tenor, his delicately enhancing employment of the head voice and subtle portamento that have all but disappeared from singing in our time combine with a relaxed, trusting attitude toward Wilhelm Muller's often mawkish poetry. Schiotz makes us believers, as Schubert surely was, in the bittersweet saga of the naive mill hand who gives his all, including his life, for the faithless "miller's lovely daughter" of the title.

The Schiotz "Mullerin," thanks to Preiser's enterprise, has been restored to us in all its glory, and in better sound than might have been considered possible with transfers from 78 rpm disks. One small caveat: As ever with this label, no vocal texts are provided, and there is only the briefest historical note, in German only.

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The marvel of artfulness and feeling that Schiotz accomplished is recalled, according to some of my British colleagues, in the brand-new recording of the Schubert cycle (Hyperion) by yet another of their singing sensations--the second vocal coming is becoming a semiannual event in the U.K.--tenor Ian Bostridge.

To these ears, Bostridge's choirboy tenor and interpretive gifts are unimposing, even without Schiotz's example. He avoids portamento as if it were tantamount to singing out of tune and employs a dynamic palette that sounds computer-generated in this dramatically uninflected traversal of one of the core works of musical Romanticism.

The most compelling thing about this offering, Volume 25 (33025) in Hyperion's continuing collection of Schubert's 600-odd songs, is the inclusion of the six "Mullerin" poems Schubert did not set. They are read here, with the true lieder singer's command of phrase and inflection, by that past master of the recitalist's art, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Welcome, too, are the vastly informative annotations by Graham Johnson, producer of the series and the perceptive pianist throughout.

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The closest anyone has come in recent years to conveying the mood of Schiotz's "Mullerin" while also projecting a personal viewpoint is Franco-German tenor Christoph Pregardien on his Deutsche Harmonia release of a couple of years ago. He follows up that laudable effort now with a splendid collection of two dozen of Schubert's Goethe settings, each of them a unique world of sound and feeling, again with the imaginative Andreas Staier playing a piano dating from the second decade of the 19th century, when this music was written (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 77342).

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