In this age of digital music, I’m still a fan of CDs. I’m not opposed to MP3s, and the like. Certainly, iTunes is a great way of getting hold of a song from an album where you really only like one or two songs.

But, when it comes to buying classical music, I still love the CD. And this CD series would be a classic example of why. I’ve done an earlier review of Volume 1 in the series, but as a brief recap:

In the early 80s, the pianist Graham Johnson persuaded the Hyperion record label to let him release a complete collection of all the songs ever written by the composer, Franz Schubert. Considering that Schubert wrote over 600 songs in his short life (he died in his 30s), it was an immense recording project and took 37 CDs. I’m slowly collecting and listening to them.

Graham is the constant link in all of these CDs, and he accompanies all the songs, but he picks a different singer for each album. In this case, he picked the baritone, Stephen Varcoe.

Varcoe is not particularly famous outside of England (and even there, he may not be completely well-known), but he has a very pleasant baritone voice, which makes these songs very easy to listen to. (No unpleasant operatic belting here.)

Graham tends to group songs by theme, and in this second volume, he has picked a group of songs all themed around the idea of water. (Not, however, “The Trout” which would probably be the most famous Schubert song of all – or would that be “The Erl-King”? Hard to pick . . .)

As with all these volumes, because it is a complete set, you get some well-known songs and some really obscure ones, all side by side. What makes them interesting is the liner notes. Graham goes to town, writing several paragraphs for each song in the booklet, explaining what he’s doing in the piano, what the singer is doing with his voice, what Schubert is doing in the music, the background to the song, who the lyricist was, what’s going on in the music, etc. His level of knowlege is immense and his enthusiasm is infectious.

Also, there are interesting experiments. For instance, the first two tracks contain the same song lyrics set to different melodies. Schubert came back later in life and tried his hand at the same song. So by having them on the same CD, you get to hear how varying the accompaniment can change the whole tone of a song.

But probably the real main piece on this CD is a song that runs for half an hour that tells the legend off a young man that dives off a cliff into a swirling maelstrom to rescue a cup so that he can win the hand of the king’s daughter. It’s quite dramatic, with the piano all the time providing the dramatic accompaniment (like a soundtrack) to the whole thing.

All in all, a good album of lieder and it certainly made me happy to buy future albums in this series. Which I will hopefully get to review in due course.

4 out of 5.

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8 thoughts on “CD Review: The Hyperion Schubert Edition Complete Songs – Vol. 2

  1. Great you enjoy this series – its lovely to dip into, either CD at a time or just randomly for the fun of it.
    Look out for the box set edition – can be had relatively cheaply compared with buying the CDs individually. e.g. its on MDT at the moment for £137 – about half the price of the CDs. I’m sure I’ve seen it even cheaper at times e.g. in HMV.
    Its gets better as its goes too!

  2. I’ve seen the box set – but it doesn’t appeal so much, primarily because it doesn’t have Graham Johnson’s liner notes. It’s the educational aspect of the series – that it teaches you about lieder and how to appreciate the songs – that makes it so brilliant. The performances are great, too – but combined with Johnson’s notes, it’s an outstanding piece of musical recorded history. It’s a shame individual volumes are slowly going out of print.

  3. I actually started feverishly collecting this set a few years ago and, through some persistence and patience, eventually managed to get them all. I agree totally about the value of the liner notes … even now, all these years later, the who process of diving into a disc, at random or by choice, is just made so much richer by Graham Johnson’s analyses. I still find it incredible that, of all those hundreds of songs, not one of them, as far as I can see, is uninteresting. This project of Graham Johnson must surely be one of the greatest achievements in the whole history of recorded music.

  4. It’s an interesting question, though – would we perceive them to be interesting if Graham Johnson hadn’t bothered to explain it to us?

    I’ve certainly found over the years as I explore classical music that a good explanation can make me listen differently to a piece I might have otherwise overlooked.

    In fact, nothing irritates me more than hearing a piece of music that doesn’t quite grab me – and wishing that there was somebody that could explain what was happening.

    We need more people like Graham Johnson in the orchestral world, the chamber music world – just the classical music world in general, actually.

  5. Yes, I think you’re absolutely right Matt – explanations help us see things we might otherwise have overlooked. I think they are helpful anywhere where we are encountering music (or any art form, for that matter – look at War and Peace!!) which is either complex or unfamiliar. It’s exactly what I’ve been finding in my journey into non-classical music – things I had completely ignored spring to a new like when someone – especially someone who is passionate about it – tell you what they find in it. That doesn’t necessarily have to be the sort of analysis that we get from Graham Johnson, of course – a simple but heartfelt tale about how the music speaks to someone, or what it does for them, can be every bit as good.

  6. Actually, you’re probably right there, Yvonne. I think the only reason it slipped my mind is that I almost never hear “Ave Maria” performed in the context of lieder. I don’t have a huge collection of Schubert lieder, by any stretch of the imagination, but my two volumes of Ian Bostridge singing Schubert and two CD set of Fisher-Dieskau both contain “Trout” and “Erl-King” but “Ave” is nowhere to be seen.

    Where it normally crops up is in syrupy orchestrated versions on relaxing classics CD. Not that there’s anything wrong with that . . . I’d much rather that than another rendition of the Gounod.

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