By Ken Keaton
Song Cycle: Franz Schubert: “Liebesbotschaft”; “Sei mir gegrüsst”; “Die Post”; “Der Schiffer”; “Aufenthalt”; “Nachtstück”; “Ständchen”; “Nacht und Träume”; “Lob der Tränen”; “Heidenröslein”; “Das Fischermädchen”; “Frülingsglaube”. Tony Arnold, soprano, and Daniel Lippel, guitar. New Focus Recordings 127 (42 minutes)
Franz Schubert’s guitar is proudly displayed in his Geburtshaus in Vienna. He used it to compose when his piano had been repossessed (sadly, often). Yet he wrote very little for the instrument, beyond a few pieces for male chorus and guitar. Still, during his day, arrangements of his Lieder were frequently published, especially by Diabelli. And Liszt was not the only one making instrumental transcriptions of the songs. Guitarist-composer Johann Kaspar Mertz (1806-56) did a set of six that stand out among this repertoire.
Lippel and Arnold have an interesting programming idea – the six solo transcriptions are each followed by a voice and guitar arrangement published during Schubert’s day (from a modern edition by Thomas Heck). It works quite well. The guitar solos are “Liebesbotschaft,” “Die Post,” “Aufenthalt,” “Ständchen,” “Lob der Tränen,” and “Das Fischermädchen” – four from Schwanengesang, one from Winterreise, and one other. The packaging includes texts and English translations for all the songs, including the solo transcriptions. I applaud that, but I also have to give the award for the tiniest, “death to the aging” type on a CD – that coupled with white print over a picture of a rushing stream left the text inaccessible without a magnifying glass.
These are not easy works – I’ve performed them on guitar myself – and the challenge is to capture Schubert’s heavenly melodies with all the singing sonority they need while at the same time playing the arranged piano accompaniment as support, never interfering.
Lippel manages this quite well. “Aufenthalt” storms angrily, “Die Post” dances jauntily (but doesn’t fail to catch the note of despair in poet Wilhelm Müller’s lonely lover), and “Ständchen” is simply irresistible. Was there ever a more beautiful melody?
The competition here is significant. David Leisner recorded these for Azica 71223, with several Mertz solo pieces, in a supremely beautiful performance. Hubert Käppel’s recording is out of print (it also has some transcriptions of late Brahms piano works that are amazing), but can be downloaded on iTunes. But Lippel’s is still a strong performance that will reward the listener.
Arnold has worked with Lippel before, mainly in contemporary chamber music. She has a lovely voice, good intonation, and is sensitive to the text, but for my taste was too monochromatic. Lieder singing shouldn’t be operatic, but I prefer more involvement with the narrative. Her website, screecher.com, presents her as a new- music specialist, so perhaps that area might find her more at home.
Daniel Lippel is also a new-music specialist. His website mentions nearly 40 composers who have written for him – but his discography includes Bach, Mertz and Torroba along with living composers. He does seem perfectly at home in this repertoire, and recordings of Schubert for guitar are quite rare, so it’s good to have this available.
Ken Keaton is a professor of music at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of The Mystery of Music, published by Kendall Hunt. As a music critic, he writes for American Record Guide and the Palm Beach Daily News.