Schubert: Songs of the Harper (SACD review)

Also, Sonatina for Violin and Piano; Impromptus Nos. 2-4; Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel; Sonata in A minor for Arpeggione and Piano; Piano Trio in B-flat Major. Marie-Pierre Langlamet, harp; Anna Prohaska, soprano; Ludwig Quandt, cello; Lara St. John, violin. Ancalagon ANC 141.

With a formidable lineup of players and some of Franz Schubert's lesser-known but still felicitous music, the album Schubert makes an attractive product.

First, the players: On harp we have Marie-Pierre Langlamet. She is the solo harpist of the Berlin Philharmonic. She's been on the international music scene since she was fifteen, she's performed with the major conductors and orchestras of the world, and she currently teaches at the Karajan Academy and at the Universitat der Kunste in Berlin. On cello we have Ludwig Quandt. He is the solo cellist of the Berlin Philharmonic. He's been playing the cello since the age of six, he joined the Berlin Philharmonic in 1991, and he made his solo debut under Claudio Abbado in 1996. On violin we have Lara St. John. She is a best-selling artist who has performed with many of the world's leading orchestras and owns and runs her own record label, Ancalagon, which produced the current album. And for voice, we have soprano Anna Prohaska. She made her opera debut at the age of seventeen, won numerous awards, and is presently a member of the ensemble of the Deutsche Staatsopher Berlin.

As for the music, it's Schubert (1797-1828), which all most of us need to know in order to enjoy it. As you're aware, the man wrote a ton of material, almost all of which went unpublished in his lifetime. The ten chamber pieces included on the present disc cover both his early and late years, so you'll find a good range of selections from his teens to his final year of life.

The program begins with three Songs of the Harper, Op. 12, Nos. 1-3, drawn from a novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Although the harp leads off these songs and accompanies the voice, it is really the singer that commands attention. Ms. Prohaska possesses a beautifully modulated voice that does full justice to these brief, introspective, melancholic tunes.

Next is the Sonatina for Violin and Piano in D Major, written in 1816 when Schubert was nineteen. Here, we find an early example of Schubert's playfulness at its best, with Ms. St. John's violin and Ms. Langlamet's harp (replacing the piano part) working splendidly together. The music alternates between slow and fast sections, and all of it is wonderfully lyrical, especially the performers' handling of the delectable Andante.

After that are three Impromptus, Nos. 2-4, transcribed for harp. Ms. Langlamet manages these Impromptus in positively gorgeous fashion, gliding effortlessly through each number. You'll feel you're being carried away on a cloud on a spring day the way she plays them. No. 3 is particularly enjoyable and would surely charm the most reluctant music listener.

Following the Impromptus is Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel, a song adaptation based on text from Goethe's Faust. This selection for voice and harp accompaniment gets the same meticulous treatment we heard at the beginning of the album. The tune is mournful, the rhythm suggestive of the turning of a spinning wheel.

Lara St. John
Then, we hear the Sonata in A Minor for Arpeggione and Piano, an arpeggione being a six-stringed instrument, fretted and tuned like a guitar and bowed like a cello. These days a cello usually replaces the instrument. Here, a harp transcription accompanies the cello, so both parts are transcribed for other instruments. Nevertheless, the result is most pleasing, Mr. Quandt and Ms. Langlamet teaming up for a tranquil, nuanced rendering of this delightfully tuneful work.

Finally, we get the Piano Trio in B-flat Major, "Sonatensatz," from the year 1812, among the earliest of Schubert works. The piece makes an appropriate ending for the album, transcribed as it is for harp, violin, and cello, and the performers coming together for a grand reunion. I'm sorry there wasn't a part for Ms. Prohaska's voice in it, but we can't have everything. What a thoroughly lovely disc.

The Digipak case and the accompanying booklet are beautifully illustrated and handsomely laid out. However, the arrangement of booklet notes seems a bit scattershot, and nowhere could I find any track timings.

Producer and balance engineer Martha de Francisco, recording engineer Wolfgang Schiefermair, and editing engineer Jeremy Tusz made the album at Teldex Studio, Berlin in April 2013. The sound is ultrasmooth, often delicate, well balanced, and quite natural. Never do we find any brightness, hardness, edginess, or forwardness in the instruments or voice. It's sound that nicely matches and complements the music: warm and gentle. Incidentally, the packaging indicates that Ancalagon recorded the music in SACD, although they do not indicate anything more on the subject. I listened in a two-channel system using a standard CD player and then using an SACD player.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa