An Anthology of Song, Vol. 4

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Symposium's An Anthology of Song, Vol. IV: Julia Culp and Franz Navál literally rewrites the history books in the annals of recorded sound. The conventional wisdom, probably developed among English-speaking researchers, was that no one before Richard Crooks in 1933 attempted to make a complete recording of Schubert's seminal art song cycle Die Schöne Mullerin. Crooks' version remained unreleased in the 78 era save a small selection of sides, and Crooks likely never knew that he'd been preceded in such an ambitious and non-commercial undertaking. However, history dictates otherwise -- in late 1909, a complete Die Schöne Mullerin was recorded for the German Odeon label by Viennese tenor Franz Navál, a favorite of Gustav Mahler's who made his debut in Frankfurt in 1888, was a renowned member of the company at the Berlin Hopofer in the 1890s and sang one season at the Metropolitan Opera. After retiring from opera, Navál worked as a recitalist and sang with a popular quartet.

Navál's voice is captured with surprising fidelity by the acoustical horn; by comparison, accompanist August Pilz's piano suffers, but that's a fair trade -- we are hearing a complete Die Schöne Mullerin performed in a version recorded only 85 years after its first publication by a singer who probably first sang it in the 1880s. Navál is in fine form and his voice does not betray his 54 years, though in terms of pacing this Schöne Mullerin is quite different from most others. Several of the pieces are performed rather quickly by twenty-first -- or even twentieth -- century standards. This is probably more a matter of personal choice than of the typical compression of the time to fit the medium, as this cycle was originally issued as a series of 18 single-sided discs. It may not have been intended as a coherent cycle at all, just as single recordings of every song in Die Schöne Mullerin. The classically informed style and tempi of the cycle begs the question as to whether some vestige of classical practice in regard to Schubert remained in observance through the end of the nineteenth century; perhaps it wasn't until the twentieth that performers gradually began to slow him down.

This is paired with another complete cycle, this time of Schumann's Frauenliebe und -- leben as sung by the "Dutch Nightingale," Julia Culp. A mezzo-soprano, Culp was not an opera singer and worked the recital circuit only; Frauenliebe und -leben would have been part of her bread and butter as a recitalist and she was lucky to be able to record all eight of its songs for Odeon in 1910. Unlike the Navál, this was issued as a coherent album set, and the next complete Frauenliebe und -leben wouldn't appear until 1928, when Lotte Lehmann electrically re-recorded the cycle for the same company. Culp's reading of the cycle is expressive but uneven; her performance of "Er, der Herrlichste von Allen" is a bit rushed and she seems unsure of her timing and ornaments in certain places. Part of the problem is accompanist Otto Bake, who appears to be reading his part, judging from the high number of mistakes in his playing and his ungracious choice of tempi; he certainly doesn't "wait" for Culp, who spends a good deal of her time simply trying to catch up to the accompanist. It's a pity, just because a recording is old and artifactual doesn't mean that it's going to be revelatory.

Symposium's transfer is honest and true to the original records, generally in excellent shape although some wear and tear is audible, particularly at the ends of sides; sometimes the pitch drifts around a bit, a feature commonly found in Odeon records of this period. Neither interpretation is likely to approach the experience one might have with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in Die Schöne Mullerin or, say, Kathleen Ferrier in Frauenliebe und -- leben. Nevertheless, both can be instructive, and pleasing, in other ways.

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