How did he do it?

Robert Cowan reviews some of the many historical reissues planned for the Schubert bicentenary year

So, Franz Schubert is 200 years old, and still the melodies linger on - over 600 exquisite songs, eight symphonies, choral works, string quartets, piano sonatas and countless charming morceaux. Musicians adore them and there's a mountain of recorded material scheduled for reissue during this bicentenary year.

The Arbiter label is issuing a wonderful live wartime broadcast of the elusive violin and piano Fantasie, featuring the great Bronislaw Huberman (Arbiter 105 - available from the Complete Record Co next month); Danacord offers a brand-new transfer of Axel Schiotz's achingly beautiful 1945 Die schone Mullerin (DACOCD 452); while Decca's "Schubert Masterworks" (452 389-2, 12 CDs) includes a generous sequence of fine performances - Sir Clifford Curzon in the great B flat Piano Sonata, Andras Schiff in colour-conscious Impromptus and Mstislav Rostropovich poring affectionately over the "Arpeggione" Cello Sonata. There are key symphonies under Istvan Kertesz and Josef Krips, choral works from St John's, famous chamber music recordings from London and Vienna and, perhaps best of all, searching, even disturbing renditions of the two great song-cycles - Die schone Mullerin and Winterreise - by Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten.

Pears and Britten were incomparable Schubertians; indeed, they turn up again, performing Im Fruhling and Auf der Bruck in the context of EMI's epoch-making "Schubert on Record 1898-1952" (CHS5 66150-2 and 66154-2 - two three-CD sets), a truly "historical" set that chronicles a manner of interpretation that would have vanished completely had it not been for the art of recording. Where else are you likely to hear a singer whose earliest audiences had known Schubert in person? Gustav Walter's rapt performance of Schwanengesang's "Am Meer" was set down in 1904, whereas two years later the great Lilli Lehmann acted out a compelling Erlkonig.

Virtually all 129 performances relate highly personalised narratives, but none more so than Ottilie Metzger's 1910 Gruppe aus dem Tartarus. "Anguish contorts those faces," runs the translation, "despair wrenches those jaws apart to utter imprecations." Thirty-three years later and Metzger perished at Auschwitz. There are two septuagenarian Organ Grinders, Harry Plunket-Greene singing in eloquent English and Sir George Henschel, recorded when he was 78 but sounding half his age. Meta Seinemeyer sings Gretchen at her Spinning-wheel with Frieder Weismann conducting an uncredited orchestration. "Ah, I might seize and hold him, and kiss him as I would like," she sings; "in his kisses I should pass away." Seinemeyer married Weissmann on her deathbed. Vanni Marcoux dishes up a Trout in French, Leo Sibiriakov recalls his Resting Place in Russian, and Harold Williams is an English Memnon.

All are magnificent, though Richard Tauber's "Dream of Springtime" (accompanied on the piano by film-music composer Mischa Spoliansky) is greater still, and Gerhard Husch's beautifully enunciated "Die Taubenpost" should be on every fledgling singer's listening list. Elena Gerhardt's An die Musik (with Artur Nikisch, no less) conveys a rare nobility, even through an 85-year-old "horn" recording, and there's a delightful sequence by the perennially youthful Elisabeth Schumann.

Some names are less familiar. Susan Metcalfe-Casals, for example, one- time wife of a great cellist, whose extraordinary inflectional vocabulary makes for an unforgettable Nachtstuck. I could go on... and on... but far better to explore the set for yourself. Recorded quality ranges from the primitive (Edith Clegg in 1898) to the lifelike "mono-fi" (Kirsten Flagstad in 1952); there are texts and translations, but no singer-biographies.

A Schubert lied is a world in miniature, though when the voice is right and the singer feels the text, scale bows to substance. And if you want proof of that claim, then this magnificent set provides it in abundance.

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