Apparition: songs by Purcell and Crumb

Christine Schäfer; Eric Schneider (Onyx 4021)

Release Date: November 2007 4.5 stars

Christine Schaefer: ApparitionChristine Schäfer's new disc, 'Apparition', juxtaposes the songs of Henry Purcell and George Crumb, punctuated by readings from Shakespeares sonnets. It's a fascinating idea and makes for a rewarding listen. Lavishly produced, the card box is contained within a frosted plastic sleeve, the art work shows Schäfer among the bones of dinosaurs. In her programme note she writes with a disarming lack of pretentiousness - 'here I am standing in a sort of wedding dress in the midst of bones!' The whole enterprise is also prevented from becoming eccentric by the seriousness with which she and pianist Eric Schneider approach their performances, and the high quality of their interpretations.

Schäfer tells us she's often placed Purcell and Crumb together in concert programmes and the combination works extremely well; the Purcell comes across as relevant and modern and the melodiousness of much of Crumb's writing is accentuated. Although Schäfer admits that it's up to the listener to re-programme the order on the disc if he or she sees fit, the running sequence she has worked out with Schneider strikes me as highly effective.

The disc gets its name from Crumb's 1979 'Elegiac Songs and Vocalises' for soprano and amplified piano – a substantial 25 minute work which gives Schäfer a chance to display her interpretative art to the full. The songs themselves are atmospheric and haunting. The first, for example, starts with a strange, ethereal strumming against which Crumb pits a meandering vocal line. The sometimes slightly chilly beauty of Schäfer's voice – she has an uncanny way of removing the vibrato – suits this perfectly. She not only throws herself fully into the songs, but also rises to the challenges of the vocalises.

As the work progresses, the line between the songs themselves and the vocalises seems to blur. The fearful 'Dark mother always gliding near with soft feet' turns into the wordless 'Invocation' and the frantic 'Approach strong deliveress'. The final vocalise – 'Death carol' ('song of the nightbird') – is a bizarre evocation of bird song, introducing the remarkably bleak 'Come lovely and soothing death' and a repeat of 'The night in silence under many a star'. Crumb's use of the piano is consistently inspired, creating a whole world of sounds, conjured up expertly by Schneider. In anything less than a totally committed performance, this could fall flat. Schäfer gives it her all though and the result is an engrossing performance of a fascinating work.

The rest of the disc is made up from some more familiar Purcell songs, interspersed with Crumb's romantic and highly melodic Three Early Songs (1947) and readings of extracts from Shakespeare's sonnets read by young Sebastian Carewe. His voice is subjected to some strange sampling in what's maybe the only slight miscalculation on the disc, although these little interjections do serve to bind the musical numbers together.

Schäfer's way with the Purcell is every bit as successful. She reinvigorates many of these songs so we can hear afresh how consistently inspired the composer was in this medium. She and Schneider give a wonderfully responsive rendition of 'From rosy bow'rs', for example, and the way Schäfer points the text and reacts to Purcell's setting, brimming with ideas, is refreshing and moving (listen to her at 'Ah! Let the sould of music tune my voice').  Although her English is quite superb, there's something about her pronunciation which prevents it from sounding too 'English'; it makes for direct, unmediated communication. The final Purcell number is a particularly affecting performance of 'Dido's lament'.

This might not be a conventional vocal recital, but it makes for a fascinating and refreshing experience. I have nothing but admiration for Schäfer, Schneider and Onyx in taking such an interesting diversion off the beaten path.

By Hugo Shirley