- Franz Schubert - The Supreme Melodist [Recommended Recordings]
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Franz Schubert
Recommended Recordings

"Trout" Quintet, etc
(Emanuel Ax, Pamela Frank, et al.)
Schubert wrote the Trout Quintet as a carefree young man still untouched by ill health and poverty; it radiates golden sunshine, confident hope, and high spirits. His earliest large-scale composition, it is among his most popular works. Its variation movement is the first of several in which he used one of his own songs as the theme, and this record includes the song itself--an inspired idea. It also includes the Arpeggione Sonata, the only surviving piece written for that now extinct six-stringed instrument, whose range most closely resembles that of the cello. The performances are all superb, lovely in tone, unanimous in phrasing, articulation, feeling, and spirit. The quintet is lively, simple, exuberant, and expressive; Ax plays his brilliant part with lightness, grace, and virtuosity, but never dominates the ensemble. In the sonata, Ma and Ax capture the dreamy poetry, wistful inwardness, and romantic ardor of this deeply affecting music beautifully. (review by Edith Eisler)

Die Winterreise
(Jörg Demus, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau)
Any great concert singer is likely to have a lifelong obsession with Schubert's greatest song cycle, which tracks the winter journey of a jilted lover wandering into the snow finding ever-greater depths of alienation. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau seemed to record the piece every 10 years or so, but this 1966 outing is said to be his favorite, and it's easy to understand why. All of his customary intelligence is in full evidence, but the voice is particularly resplendent. While this carries an obvious sensual appeal--and every two minutes or so he does something that takes your breath away--the voice also illuminates his overall interpretive concepts with a clarity that can be achieved perhaps only by a voice in its absolute prime. Particularly gratifying is his emotional directness; later performances could be so refined, so worked over that the emotionalism (such an important part of this piece) seemed more remembered than felt. (review by David Patrick Stearns)

Goethe Lieder
(Thomas Quasthoff, Charles Spencer)
Baritone Thomas Quasthoff--whose moving Schwanengesang we featured last month--is one of today's leading interpreters of the art song. The performances here were recorded in May 1993 and follow a program of Schubert songs to texts of the poet Goethe, with Charles Spencer on piano.

Piano Sonata D 960, etc
(Mitsuko Uchida)
This is a marvelous musical coupling: Schubert's overwhelmingly moving last Piano Sonata and the visionary set of pieces written a few months earlier. There are several outstanding performances of the Sonata currently available, including those of Schnabel, Lupu, and Curzon. For the Piano Pieces, the only performance of comparable stature in the current catalogs seems to be one by Kyoko Tabe (Denon), which has the same Sonata for coupling. Neither pianist is very heart-on-sleeve in any of this music, so if you want more overtly romantic Schubert, look elsewhere. But both Uchida and Tabe give us profoundly moving interpretations of all this music, each on such a high level that it's impossible to make a choice between them. I'd buy 'em both. (review by Leslie Gerber)

Schubert: Schwanengesang
(Bryn Terfel, baritone; Malcolm Martineau, piano )
When star baritone Bryn Terfel is singing, you don't need to worry about a lieder recital becoming staid. As with his beautifully sensitive recent disc of Schumann songs, Terfel focuses his arresting vocal power and striking dramatic presence on Schubert's despair-drenched songs, and his ongoing partnership with pianist Malcolm Martineau brings out a rich variety of colors.

Schubert: The Final Year
(John Mark Ainsley, Graham Johnson, David Pyatt, Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, Michael Schade)
This 37th volume completes Hyperion's traversal of the complete (more than 600) songs of Franz Schubert with glorious renditions of some of the most savagely sad songs ever composed. At least as played by Graham Johnson, the mastermind of the series, and sung by Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, the final songs of the "Schwanengesang" are almost unbearable in their naked beauty. Among living musicians, only Mitsuko Uchida can as deftly divine the ache in Schubert and then deliver it without sentimentality.

Johnson divides the songs that make up the so-called "Swan Song" between Rolfe-Johnson and the lighter-voiced John Mark Ainsley, who responds with the most sensitive singing of his career (including a song called "Farewell"). Four other songs from 1828 are ably dispatched by Michael Schade. These three tenors sing for eternity. As usual, Johnson augments interpretations of great illumination with 109 pages of notes.

String Quintet
(Mstislav Rostropovich; Emerson String Quartet)
When not composing songs, Franz Schubert was most at home with chamber music, not because he was a miniaturist, but because his most profound thoughts were most readily contained by smaller, more concentrated ensembles. His Quintet in C--by far the great work ever written for a string quartet with an extra cello--shows him at his summit with an ethereal second movement that often communicates the sense of spiritual suspended animation that the minimalists strive for but don't often achieve. The Emerson Quartet might seem a bit edgy for this assignment, but instead, the quartet delivers one of the best recordings of its career. Instead of just being swept away by its rapturous lyricism, the quartet probes the emotional depths and meaning of the music's gestures in concentrated, deeply felt performances. The piece is clearly a particular favorite of guest cellist Mstislav Rostropovich (he has recorded it several times before), but like most good chamber players, his presence isn't heard so much as it's felt. Perhaps he is responsible for the particular warmth of this performance. (review by David Patrick Stearns)


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