Barbara Hendricks / Roland Pöntinen

Schubert: Ave Maria

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This five-song release, budget-priced and with its tracks also available individually as Internet downloads, could serve as an introduction to the remarkable artistry of African-American-Swedish soprano Barbara Hendricks. It includes Schubert's Ave Maria, D. 839, which is one of her trademarks, along with four other familiar Schubert songs. In an elegant note accompanying the CD, Hendricks indicates that she stuck to lesser known Schubert repertoire before taking up the standards later in life, and it shows in her detailed, fully developed interpretations. Four of the five texts are by Goethe (the Ave Maria is a German translation of Walter Scott), and they have a folk-like aspect even if the content is profound. Hendricks plays against the simplicity, offering dramatic readings in which the story is told through the registers and textures of her voice rather than through power: the dynamic level never rises above mezzo-forte. These are somewhat unorthodox Schubert readings that consign the basic simplicity of his songs to the background; even the Ave Maria, with its plain accompanimental arpeggios, proceeds in the fits and starts of passionate speech rather than in regular melody. And Hendricks is not above bending the pronunciation of words (check out the mutations of "kennt" [knows] in "Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt," track 4) in order to vary a vocal line. This said, her readings are also extremely compelling, and everybody should hear them once. This disc makes it possible, but the typos in the booklet -- in the original German, not in the English or French translations -- detract from the overall presentation. The four Goethe tracks were recorded in 2003, and the Ave Maria, in the same location, in 2007; there was a subtle addition of both depth and grain to Hendricks' voice in the interim.

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