Tuesday 15 December 2015

Music Web International: Schubert Lieder Review



"Elsner is steadfast and impressive in vocal colouring and clarity. With near effortless delivery he holds his phases unfailingly and alters tension and mood reflecting sensitivity to the words."

 

PENTATONE release of "Schubert Lieder- Orchestrated by Max Reger & Anton Webern" with Christian Elsner, Marek Janowski, and Rundfunk - SInfonieorchester Berlin received a superlative review on Music Web International. This review praised how Elsner maintains his high level of sensitivity avoiding any need for over-sentimentality throughout the orchestration . Read more of this exquisitely written review.

 

In March this year (2015) I had the good fortune to see the German-born Christian Elsner perform as one of the four soloists in the Dvoƙák Stabat mater with Bavarian Radio forces under Mariss Jansons at the Herkulessaal, Munich. The present disc comprises seventeen Schubert Lieder of which thirteen are orchestrations by Reger and four are Webern orchestrations.

Schubert’s Lieder amount to over six hundred works and their overall quality and wealth of ideas have greatly appealed to other composers who began preparing arrangements not long after Schubert’s death in 1828. Brahms who venerated Schubert wrote five orchestrations of his Lied stating “There is no song by Schubert that cannot teach us something.” Those composers attracted to arranging Schubert Lied include such renowned orchestrators such as Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt, Max Reger, Johannes Brahms, Jacques Offenbach, Anton Webern and Benjamin Britten although I rarely see these editions included on concert programmes. In the Pentatone booklet notes Franz Steiger suggests this seeming lack of interest reflects the arrangements not being valued to the same degree as Schubert’s original work.

Evidently Reger made a careful selection of the Schubert Lied, a period that centred around 1913/14 when he was music director of the Meininger Hofkapelle and which presented opportunities to perform these works. The Bavarian composer wrote to his publisher explaining that he had ensured the scoring of his orchestrations would not “muffle” the vocal soloists. These are well chosen examples of Reger’s expertise for orchestration and there are several that I particularly enjoyed. Sung most effectively the agitated quality of the enduringly popular Erlkönig a setting of the Goethe poem translates well in Reger’s astute orchestration with a flute part representing the “sweet temptations.” There's a tender charm and real sensitivity in Elsner's rendition of the Rückert verse Greisengesang. In Prometheus, to a Goethe text the tenor is bold and unwavering in this splendid test of his lower register. In the Schiller setting Gruppe aus dem Tartarus Elsner excels amid Reger’s Wagnerian murmurings and a mysterious rather chilling character. With the final work Im Abendrot again to a Lappe text the tenor is clearly at ease in a setting that explores deep introspection and intense pining.

 

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Webern undertook his Schubert Lieder orchestrations mainly around 1903 predominantly as student exercises at the time of his musicology studies at Vienna University. In these highly successful settingsDu bist die Ruh' (Rückert) especially notable with a flowing accompaniment to which Elsner gives delightful expression. Exceptional also is Der Wegweiser number 20 in the celebrated song cycle Die Winterreise. This orchestration underlines the song's deeply illusive quality. Here Elsner maintains his high level of sensitivity avoiding any need for over-sentimentality.

Throughout this collection Elsner is steadfast and impressive in vocal colouring and clarity. With near effortless delivery he holds his phases unfailingly and alters tension and mood reflecting sensitivity to the words.

Under the guiding hand of its experienced chief conductor Marek Janowski the playing of the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin is always eminently musical with a finely judged feel for the orchestrations. Using my standard player this hybrid SACD, engineered to a high standard, is pleasingly clear and well balanced. Thanks to Pentatone for providing full German texts with English translations in the booklet and I found the accompanying essay ‘Work of art? Craftsmanship?’ by Franz Steiger informative and highly readable.

In addition to this desirable album there are three albums of Schubert Lieder orchestrations all splendidly performed and recorded that I can wholeheartedly recommend. The programme on each is shared by a male and female singer. This contrast of voice type and vocal character fend off any possibility of tedium. Probably the best known is a 2002 collection of twenty-one Lied orchestrated by eight different composers sung by Anne Sophie von Otter and Thomas Quasthoff with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra conducted by Claudio Abbado on Deutsche Grammophon. Camilla Nylund and Klaus Mertens sing fifteen of Reger’s Lieder orchestrations with the NDR Radiophilharmonie under Werner Andreas Albert recorded in 1997 on CPO. Finally fifteen of Reger’s Lieder orchestrations sung by Ina Stachelhaus and Dietrich Henschel were recorded in 1997 with the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra under Dennis Russell Davies on MDG Gold.

In excellent form Elsner makes a splendid case for these inexplicably neglected arrangements.

Michael Cookson