Song Cycles (Prey, Hokanson, Sawallisch, Moore)

Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin, D795*. Winterreise, D9111. Schwanengesang, D957.

Hermann Prey (baritone), *Leonard Hokanson, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Gerald Moore (piano). Philips


Each of the great cycles recorded here has its own accompanist, as if the piano parts were replaceable spares. The engineers agree, to judge from the different voice-keyboard balances. All this is a pity, because the piano is often the main vehicle of expression. Given creative accompanying, like Britten's (for example with Peter Pears in Die schöne Müllerin on Decca SXL2200, 6/60 and in Winterreise on SET270-1, 7/65), the voice can be either lyric or dramatic, as talents and tastes dictate. Take for instance D795 No. 5. Oh, for many more limbs and much more strength in them, cries the love-sick miller, eager to display his prowess but proving no more impressive than any boy apprentice. The piano prelude, discerningly played, sounds like impotence posing as competence. Fischer-Dieskau, in his HMV set with Gerald Moore, typically starts acting from the first line. "Hätt' ich tausend Arme zu rühren", he sings, already half aware of being a figure of fun. With Hermann Prey this phrase is more like a figure of speech; his vocal lines are poetic rather than histrionic.

    This approach has its own positive virtues. We can hear from the beautiful diction that the poet Müller was not just a corn merchant, as his detractors might claim. The verses emerge with the freshness and warmth that Schubert himself must have found sharply appetizing, as the zest in the music shows. But this excitement is less manifest in the delivery. The baritone's downward transposition forfeits some of the necessary tautness; the lyric interpretation lowers the dramatic tension still further. Normally the expressive detail could be left in no safer hands than Gerald Moore's; but the piano tone in D957 often seems too muffled for my liking. Thus in the first song the brook is hardly even clear, let alone silver-bright as the text stipulates. Through no fault of the pianist's, the whole cycle sounds somewhat soft-pedalled, and hence in my view rather unserviceable, despite some admirable performances. Leonard Hokanson, with a more forward balance, has more dynamic thrust. But he can hardly be a thorough-paced Schubertian, or he would not have sought to improve on his source, e.g. by spreading the opening chord of D795 No. 13; nor will it do to keep on playing (however deftly) the last top note in bar 2 etc. of that song, which is surely just a contemporary misprint perpetuated in the Peters edition. There are several memorable moments, e.g. in Mein!; but in general these accompaniments are not quite idiomatic or creative enough to give Prey the support he needs. Wolfgang Sawallisch arguably comes closest to the Britten ideal, despite a rather disappointing start. His veering prelude to Die Wetterfahne not only sets the tone for the voice but points it in the right interpretative direction. Similarly at the rousing cockcrow in D911 No. 11 the singer rises to the occasion, which is exactly the sense of the music. Once or twice I felt that a point was missed; in No. 19 for example the will o' the wisp accompaniment is so much more will than wisp. But the piano often provides the sound basis so essential for the lyric flights; and this can turn Prey's winning performances into prize-winning ones.

    I'm all the more sorry to have to mention some further disqualifications. The singing is not always meticulous about note-values, and there are verbal inaccuracies in D957 No. 14. I think that Philips should have been more explicit about recording details; these performances are three or four years old, and have already been issued in Germany. Finally the rhymed “translations” into “English” are so shamefully inept as to render this set quite useless to anyone who has to rely on them.


© gramophone, Dec. 1977 (p. 1128)