These 17 discs comprise essential foundations for any record collection.
Daniel Ross 2012
When building a library, there are certain books and bodies of work that are indispensable. These established classics might not be the first thing you grab for an eager thumb-through, but without them you’d be missing the building blocks. Naturally, the same can be said when you’re building a music library as well, and this exhaustive compendium of Schubert lieder is the equivalent of, say, the complete works of Arthur Conan Doyle.
Loosely, the idea with this enthralling set is to compile a gorgeous selection of Schubert’s poetic songs across 17 discs. The recordings date, almost unbelievably, from 1898 and take us right up to the present, so there’s an incredible sense of broadness and of historical perspective that makes this something of a museum item. Progression can be measured not only from crackling shellac recordings to pristine digital audio, but also from crisp, unfussy performances to nuanced, considered takes on myriad moods.
A perfect comparison piece would be Harry Plunket Greene’s brisk, workmanlike but thoroughly charming interpretation of Der Leiermann from Winterreise from 1934, alongside Thomas Hampson’s 2012 version of the same song. Hampson’s is a full 40 seconds longer and far more varied in tone, but Greene’s sticks to the idea that these songs could be performed by anyone, simple and spooky (as is befitting of the source poem) throughout. There are dozens more little games to be had with this set that make its 17 discs supremely explorable, and the results can sometimes be very surprising.
But back to Arthur Conan Doyle. What Sherlock Holmes’ creator managed to do with his mannered prose was elucidate on huge events and worldly themes using the most simple and nugget-like expression: short stories. Schubert, with his legion of poetic material from his beloved Goethe and others, does exactly the same thing. There’s a song here for almost any occasion, mood, scene and emotion, with stunning range crammed into a mere few minutes per piece.
Perhaps the only improvement might have been some more accessible translations (they’re stuffed onto a CD-ROM), but with this box on the shelf of your library your musical foundations will be infinitely stronger.