It’s not pleasant, witnessing the gradual retreat of the classical-record industry from artistic significance to blandness and the spread of the notion that serious music won‘t hurt you if you don’t listen too hard. Retreads predominate: Romantico Domingo, The Ultimate Mozart Album, The Greatest Classical Show on Earth. Promising projects are begun, then abandoned midway: Sony‘s Ligeti project with Esa-Pekka Salonen, for example.
It’s a privilege as well as a shock to report, therefore, the completion of one project that, on its own, suggests that it‘s still possible to take the recording industry seriously, and to suspect that, in some corners, there remains a belief in a buying public with taste, brains and curiosity. A couple of months ago, the British label Hyperion, whose products are distributed in this country by Harmonia Mundi, completed its recording of the entire song literature of Franz Schubert. Volume 37, the final disc, is devoted to songs of Schubert’s last year, but that doesn‘t mean that the entire series, consisting of over 750 separate entries, runs in chronological order. One of the remarkable aspects of the series, in fact, is the variety of intelligence expended in organizing each disc. You may not want to spend something like 50 consecutive hours with Schubert’s total song output, but if you did you would not be bored.
The intelligence is that of Graham Johnson, who organized the order of events, chose the appropriate singers (Brits mostly, but not entirely) for each song, accompanied every performance at the piano, and wrote 37 sets of exhaustive program notes — in booklets running as long as 100 pages each — that, by themselves, constitute a landmark of writing about music out of love, scholarship and evangelical ardor. (A Schubert scholar myself, with a thesis to prove it, I write those last words out of awe and undisguised envy.) Several of the volumes run chronologically — ”The Young Schubert,“ ”The Final Year,“ etc. Some attempt to re-create the ”Schubertiades,“ the famous informal gatherings of Schubert adorers where poets gathered, songs were sung, and intelligent conversation ran thick and fast. The series includes an ”1815 Schubertiade“ and a ”Goethe Schubertiade,“ although the great poet-philosopher never attended one in person. (In the final set of notes, Johnson wittily imagines a mutual-admiration meeting between composer and poet. It takes place a few years after Schubert‘s actual death and shortly before Goethe’s.) Most rewarding are the volumes arranged around themes: a collection of water songs, a nocturnal set, and one about visions of Death and Heaven that begins with the harrowing ”Tod und das Madchen“ and ends with a serene, angelic ”Seligkeit“ that sends you off onto your own Cloud Nine.
Schubert‘s reputation is on the rise. The rediscovered, reconstructed ”deathbed“ symphony (No. 10 in some reckonings), with its haunting, bleak slow movement, heightens the sense of loss in his death at 31. Mitsuko Uchida’s new Philips recordings of his sonatas and impromptus are awesomely beautiful. I envy anyone first discovering — preferably in the Emersons‘ recording on DG — the astonishing icy grandeur of the G-major, the last of the string quartets. Even so, it is the songs that define Schubert the best, and can move us the most by our just thinking about them. As the church cantatas for Bach, as the late piano concertos for Mozart, the confluence of Schubert and poetry — even bad poetry so long as it also possessed a soul — produced an art whose closeness to humanness leaves mere verbal description futile. Something happens inside all of us when the Boy cries out in terror at the Erlking’s caress; when the Young Nun finds solace in a glimpse of heaven; when, across the still landscape of Night and Dreams, the harmony suddenly drops to some other realm and we lose a breath.
Johnson‘s zeal fills these discs remarkably well. Everything is here: fragments of songs left unfinished for one reason or another; poems that Schubert set more than once, sometimes years apart; part songs for several voices with piano; interesting oddities. A set of pretty, wordless vocal exercises bears witness that Schubert earned a few shillings now and then giving voice lessons. A bullying letter from the poet Matthaus Collin to his cousin Joseph Spaun (”Why do you never write . . .?“) is transformed by Schubert into a parody of Italian operatic recitative. ”Der Hochzeitbraten“ for three voices with piano accompaniment is a hilarious small scene celebrating a rural wedding feast. A duet for soprano and bass by the 17-year-old Schubert, to a text from Goethe’s Faust, points toward a career in opera that, alas, never got off the ground.
Not all of Johnson‘s singers are elegant vocal technicians, but most are; the list includes such luminaries as Thomas Hampson, Elly Ameling, Lucia Popp and Thomas Allen. Even among the ever-so-slightly-lesser lights, the level is remarkably high, and it’s obvious through the entire ensemble that Johnson‘s presence at the piano becomes the major shaping force. And there are wonderful performances: Ian Bostridge, participating at the very start of his career, will wring your heart with Die schone Mullerin, which gleans an extra thread of gold as the veteran Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who owned this music in his time, comes on to read the verses. Among the German singers, Matthias Goerne’s Winterreise is superb, and the great tenor Peter Schreier delivers one of my favorite less-known songs, ”Auf der Bruck,“ with glorious hammer strokes. Brigitte Fassbaender has the entire ”Death and Heaven“ disc to herself, and delivers a devastating ”Tod und das Madchen“ at the start. One disappointment: That delightful piece with the clarinet and the yodeling, ”Der Hirt auf dem Felsen,“ should have been on the ”Last Years“ collection. It had, however, been sung by Arleen Auger, rather heavily, on an earlier disc.
The series began with Janet Baker‘s singing of ”Der Jungling am Bache,“ a song from Schubert’s 15th year — full of ”youthful ardor and innocence,“ says Graham Johnson‘s note. It ends with Anthony Rolfe Johnson’s singing of ”Die Taubenpost“ from 16 years later. ”This blend of happiness and wistfulness,“ writes Graham Johnson, ”sets the seal, gently and without ceremony, on a composer‘s entire songwriting career, indeed his entire creative life.“ It is generally reckoned as Schubert’s last song, completed in October 1828. One month later, its composer was dead.