A little over a week ago the Canadian Analekta label released a new recording entitled Schubert Sessions. The album presents sixteen songs by Franz Schubert, most (if not all) of which are likely to be familiar to those who enjoy this aspect of Schubert’s work. The vocalist is Canadian baritone Philippe Sly, but what makes the album unique is that Sly is accompanied by guitarist John Charles Britton, performing his own arrangements of the original piano parts that Schubert composed.
The guitar was a “serious” instrument during the nineteenth century, particularly in salon settings. One of Andrés Segovia’s albums is entitled The Romantic Guitar, on which he performs his transcriptions of compositions by Edvard Grieg, Felix Mendelssohn, and Johannes Brahms, among others. Since many (if not most) of Schubert’s songs probably received their performances in similar salon settings, it is not out of the question that, on some of those occasions, the singer would have been accompanied by a guitar, rather than a piano.
At this point I should make a disclaimer about my own listening experiences. In November of 2013, thanks to the programming of San Francisco Performances, I was able to attend a performance of Sly and Britton presenting this approach to singing Schubert in a “salon” setting at the Hotel Rex in San Francisco. I think it would be fair to say that I have not encountered such an intimate encounter with Schubert since that evening. As a result, when Analekta announced the release of Schubert Sessions, I could barely restrain my curiosity.
To be fair, intimacy is a quality of performance in the immediate present. What we hear on a recording amounts to a transformation of performance through microphones, amplifiers, mixing boards, and, ultimately, storage technology that then provides the data for subsequent reproduction. Still, there are many cases in which the engineers involved in this process can create the illusion of intimacy, whether it involves Art Tatum at a piano keyboard or the gossamer delicacy of the Adagietto movement from Gustav Mahler’s fifth symphony. From that point of view, Analekta’s engineering techniques, combined with the sensitivity that both Sly and Britton bring to their performances, could not be better at achieving that illusion.
The only downside is the absence of texts in the accompanying booklet. However, because these particular songs are so familiar, most listeners will not feel inconvenienced by this absence. Besides, every text the listener may wish to consult can be found on the Franz Peter Schubert Web page on the Web site for The LiederNet Archive, usually along with an English translation.