Hyperion Schuber Vol 1When I was about 10, I first discovered what lieder was. Not necessarily what the word meant. (Lieder is German for “songs”.) But what it sounds like. It would work like this.

We’d be on family holidays, driving in the car. We kids had managed to listen to whatever our favourite music was, and then Dad would say, “And now I’m going to put on one of my tapes!” Mum would roll her eyes and say, “Oh, I hate lieder.” And then the tape would start and we discovered why . . .

The music would always begin with some exciting piano playing. And then . . . just when you thought that you were listening to a really good piano piece . . . this gutteral, roaring singer would come over the top of it, and completely ruin the piano playing. Not only that, he (it was nearly always a he – later I found out that this enemy of enjoyable car-rides went by the name of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau) would be singing in German, so you couldn’t even tell what he was singing about.

Needless to say, I’ve changed my mind later in life, otherwise, I wouldn’t be reviewing this CD. Now I can tell you that lieder is a nineteenth century art-form that most of the famous composers (Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn spring to mind) dabbled in to some degree. The songs may vary in length and subject matter, but each song will usually be a solo voice, and it will always be accompanied by a piano. However, “accompanied” is probably the wrong word. In the truly great lieder, the music becomes almost a duet between the singer and piano. If you only had one without the other, you would completely ruin the whole piece.

There were an endless variety of ways that lieder could work. Some of them were strophic songs, which is our traditional type of song that we have nowadays, where the tune is the same for each verse and chorus. But a lot of them were the more adventurous through songs, where the melody and accompaniment would vary, not only from verse to verse, but sometimes from word to word. In through songs, the idea is for the music to completely match the words, and greater lieder composers would create their music in all sorts of endlessly innovative forms to match the song lyrics they were working with.

Which is why I believe that the secret to enjoying lieder is to make sure that you either a) know German (the complicated choice) or b) have a translation of the words in front of you. Once you can actually see what the poem is saying from line to line, then all of a sudden the true subtlety of this music can be appreciated.

Which brings me to The Hyperion Schubert Edition Complete Songs. This set of CDs was the brainchild of pianist, Graham Johnson. Back in 1987, he somehow managed to persuade Hyperion Recordings, a small British record label, to agree to record every single one of the lieder of Franz Schubert. Now, this is no small ask. Because Schubert, in his lifetime, wrote over 600 songs.

Not only is it a challenge to record them, how do you keep people’s interest? The only person who’d previously attempted something like this was the above-mentioned Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (who, with the benefit of years, I now recognise as quite a good singer). Dietrich recorded all the songs that could be sung by the male voice in the 60s and 70s, and that was quite a bit project at the time.

But there were still 100 or so songs written for women only that Dietrich hadn’t recorded. So Graham Johnson set about recording them all, and this CD is the first volume. His idea was quite clever. Rather than bring out a big box set of them all (though you can now get a big box set, if that’s your thing – note, it has translations but not the programme notes, of which more will be said shortly), he released it one CD at a time. For each CD, he selected one singer (though in later volumes, he would get groups of singers) and a CD’s worth (so roughly 70 minutes or so) of songs – usually picking a nice mix of the famous songs and the more obscure songs. The idea is not to have everybody’s favourites on the one disc, but to spread them out, and also to let the obscure songs become more well known.

Then, finally, and this is the brilliance of this set, for every song, not only is there a complete translation of the words, but Graham wrote extensive program notes. So, for every song, he’ll walk you through what happens in the song, what the piano is doing, what the voice is doing, etc. I have almost never come across anything in my years of classical CD collecting. Where so many classical CDs have program notes that are dry and accessible only by people with musical Ph.D’s, Graham’s interesting and mostly understandable (there is still a bit of musical jargon in there for the complete layperson) notes are excellent. So I can honestly say that due to Graham’s notes, I have learned from the CDs, not just heard them.

That’s an introduction to the entire series. As far as Volume 1 goes, the singer is Dame Janet Baker, who is a very famous British alto. By 1987, she was getting on in years, so her voice has more vibrato (or, if you’re unkind, more of a tremor) than a younger woman would have, which – depending on how much opera and lieder you’ve heard before – may be grating to some people. However, her expressiveness is outstanding. She may not be German, but when you read the translations, Janet brings out the full drama in each song.

The songs for this CD were all selected as being Schubert songs that he wrote of poetry by Goethe and Schiller, the top German poets of his day, and range from the dramatic to the melancholy to the pure romantic. All in all, a pretty good album to start with.

4 1/2 out of 5.

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