SCHUBERT: Hermann Prey – The Schubert Song Cycles, Blu-ray (2016)
Don’t pass this one up.
Performers: Hermann Prey, (baritone), Leonard Hokanson (p.), Helmut Deutsch (p.)
Studio: Naxos [11/18/16]
Video: 1.33:1 Color
Audio: DTS-HD 5.1, PCM Stereo
Subtitles: English, German, French, Spanish
Extras: Introductions by Hermann Prey
Length: 252 minutes
Ratings: Audio ****¾
Once in a great while you’ll encounter a video disc whose confluence of composer, performers, and production values is not only satisfying but one you positively must own. Michio Uchida’s Mozart: Great Piano Concertos is one such set. And so is Hermann Prey’s 1983 rendition of all three of Franz Schubert’s song cycles: Die schöne Müllerin (1823), Winterreise (1828), and Schwanengesang (1828). These are considered the best Liederzyklus (song cycles) ever written. And this is the best version I’ve ever seen.
The cycles were released individually in the mid-eighties on LaserDiscs. (Remember those? State of the art at the time, they were also fragile, expensive, and had only one hour per side. I held out for DVDs.) Now the cycles are back, snugly tucked into one Blu-ray disc; and the transfer is perfect.
At 54, Prey was at his peak and sings with artful tenderness, drama, and subtlety. His two pianists (Leonard Hokanson and Helmut Deutsch) are highly-skilled accompanists, particularly Hokenson in Die schöne Müllerin and Schwanengesang. His rendition of the penultimate song in Die schöne Müllerin, “Der Müller und der Bach” (The Miller and the Brook), shifts so smoothly between G minor and G major that the result is plaintive but never maudlin. It’s also a bit spooky.
The cinematography is spot on. The lighting is bright and cheery throughout Die schöne Müllerin, spotlighting the optimism and naivete of youth. Yet in Winterreise, it starts off bright and gradually gets darker, until the last song (the death-obsessed “Der Leiermann”), is performed in near darkness, fading to black at the last note. You will shiver, but deliciously.
As an extra, Prey gives eloquent (and short) introductions to each cycle. I’m not sure if he penned them himself, but no matter. They are fine examples of popularized scholarship. I knocked a quarter of a point off because the slapdash Blu-ray menu structure makes selecting specific songs challenging.
There are some vide0 versions of Schubert cycles. Tenor Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake did a modernistic version of Winterreise (2007), located in what looks like a dilapidated warehouse with a greenish cast. Still, Bostridge is good with romantic agony. The legendary Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau performed one in 1979, when he was also 54. It’s okay I suppose, but it’s unimaginatively filmed. And unlike Prey, Fischer-Dieskau was well past his peak at the time. In my surfing forays, I’ve found that the Prey Blu-ray is the only disc that contains all three Schubert cycles.
If you love Schubert, you now have the opportunity to binge-watch his best work, performed by a singer with a dark and deep baritone, one who could soar into the tenor range with no apparent effort. Pass this up, and you may forever rue your decision.