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From the relentless hoof beats of ‘Der Erlkönig’ to the existential despair of his song cycle Winterreise, the Lieder of Franz Schubert provide some of the most profound musical challenges for any pianist.

So piano lovers will be grateful that Lieder scholar and accompanist extraordinaire Graham Johnson, the man responsible for the marathon undertaking of recording Schubert’s complete Lieder for Hyperion Records, has further expanded his lengthy booklet notes for that series into three friendly, chatty tomes.

In addition to commentaries on over 700 songs, with texts clearly translated by Richard Wigmore, there are essays on Schubert’s poets and friends, as well as separate articles on such themes as ‘pianists’, ‘pianos’, ‘rubato’ and ‘transcriptions’. Only occasionally does the sheer word-count tip over into verbosity, as when anachronistic references to Gore Vidal and Noël Coward appear.

Johnson studied with the British pianist Gerald Moore (1899-1987), and clearly idolises his teacher, who grudgingly let himself be prodded by the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau to record hundreds of Schubert songs from 1969 to 1971; these Moore/Fischer-Dieskau performances are cited in a token discography section after each song entry, along with Johnson’s own Hyperion recordings, plus a very occasional recording by Benjamin Britten, omitting the many other great pianists in this repertoire.

Johnson pooh-poohs the widely shared notion that Moore could be cool or emotionally inexpressive as a performer, and his list of Lieder singers omits expressive Schubertians such as the tenor Werner Krenn, bass Max van Egmond, soprano Mattiwilda Dobbs and mezzo-soprano Mitsuko Shirai, focusing instead on singers he has recorded with. Shirai’s long-time performing partner, the German pianist Hartmut Höll, is briefly cited as Fischer-Dieskau’s ‘youngest accompanist’, but the landmark Shirai-Höll Winterreise CD goes unmentioned.

Johnson notes 1,907 recordings by the celebrity conductor/pianist Arthur Nikisch and the star mezzo-soprano Elena Gerhardt, yet elsewhere self-contradictingly asserts that the ‘pairing of singers and pianists for reasons of record sales is a relatively recent phenomenon’.

He offers lively description of piano parts of songs, such as ‘An Sylvia’, where the ‘left-hand figurations are those of a born comedian, a jazz player plucking his double bass, expert in cheeky interjections’. Or ‘Auf dem Wasser zu singen’, where the ‘fingers sidle, crab-like, down the keyboard, a sleight of hand that must be imperceptible … for the unpractised accompanist, it is like attempting to hold water in a clenched fist’. Other comments cannot readily be translated into practical performance advice, such as ‘Nacht und Träume’ in which the ‘little finger of the pianist’s right hand sings like a cello’ or ‘Fischerweise’, where the ‘left hand of the piano part is like a veritable chorus of assorted men’s voices’.

Johnson’s thoughts on rubato (don’t rehearse it) and on adopting non-extreme tempos are sensible, middle-of-the-road counsel. He notes that today, especially in Schubert, ‘younger performers … opt for fast (and loud) performances’ and sanely embraces the term accompanist, mocking the currently fashionable alternative of ‘collaborative pianist’, on the grounds that if it was good enough for Moore, it’s good enough for him.

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica


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