Classical Music Review: New Releases

Franz Schubert - Complete Part Songs for Male Voices.  95 Songs.  Die Singphoniker (Alfons Brandl, tenor; Hubert Nettinger, tenor; Ludwig Thomas, baritone; Gunnar Mühling, bass baritone; Christian Schmidt, bass; Berno Scharpf, fortepiano).  cpo 999 659-2 (355'44).

This is, to my mind, an almost perfect example of a boxed set.   It contains several hours of music in immaculate performances from a hitherto unplumbed corner of the repertoire.  The music is of a piece, yet it is sufficiently varied to allow for little epiphanies, as first one song, and then another, strikes the listener as a modest masterpiece.  One marvels anew at Schubert's fecundity when being transported by a piece such as "Widerhall" (Echo) only to discover that the song has been preserved by chance when a fellow student of the composer saved a scrap of paper containing the score.

Schubert's part songs have never been accorded the canonical status of his lieder for solo voices.  In truth, they are for the most part occasional pieces, all strophic in form with one or two through-composed exceptions.  They were written for the parlor, not the concert-hall, and they inhabit a more festive world than the often introspective songs.  There are "Trinklied im Winter", "Trinklied im Mai", "Trinklied aus dem 16. Jahrhundert" (Drinking Song of the 16th Century), and the vanilla "Trinklied" (several of those, in fact).  On the other hand, there are works that clearly transcend the genre such as "Ruhe, schönstes Glück der Erde" (Repose, happiest fortune on earth).

The heights to which Schubert can extend in this earth-bound genre are exemplified in his settings of Goethe's "Gesang der Geister über den Wassern" (Song of the Spirits over the Water).  Schubert attempted to set these verses at least five times and completed two versions for male voices.  The first, D 538 dating from 1817, is for voices alone.  As the words compare the human soul to a mountain stream, the voices mimic the restlessness of falling water with a rich polyphony.  When the water "slinks down the meadow valley," the harmonies become purer and the notes more sustained.  After a brief episode where the wind, a metaphor of human fate, disturbs the tranquil water, the work concludes with a church-like cadence.  Schubert's second completed setting (D 714 completed in 1820) is an even more ambitious work, scored for eight male voices and five low strings.  Here the approach is more choral (there are no solo voices) and altogether more grand.

Der Singphoniker have been together almost twenty years and the members' voices have the rich sound and perfect blend of a string ensemble.  They attempt to reproduce the acoustical ambiance of the bourgeois salon.  The singing is restrained with a limited dynamic range and soloistic expression is kept to a minimum.  The vocal technique is akin to that of a Victorian barbershop quartet.

Interestingly enough, the male part-song genre can be considered a product of the repressive politics of the Metternich era.  Fear of revolutionary activity led to the banning of all-male organizations, so there were no male choruses.  Schubert's compositions were therefore intended for a collection of soloists (the original performers were drawn from the court opera and the better-trained members of the Society of the Friends of Music), allowing him to place greater demands on the individual parts.  So something good came from the Congress of Vienna!

Tony Gualtieri
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