The first line of Sibylla Rubens' biography boldly refers to the singer's 'pure, almost angelic voice'. Luckily, this description is accurate and in the repertory chosen for this disc, the third of Schubert's settings of Romantic Poets in Naxos's Deutsche Schubert-Lied-Edition, she proves herself to be a near ideal interpreter. The voice is bright, clean and carefully controlled, wonderfully capturing the gentle piety, wide-eyed sense of wonder and melancholy that pervade these songs.
She is accompanied by Ulrich Eisenlohr, the series' 'artistic leader', who also provides a booklet note which just about manages to sum up the heady mix of religiosity and sensuousness that informed the work of poets set here, even if the sometimes knotty sentences require a certain amount of unravelling. The programme centres around six Novalis settings, the four Geistliche Lieder and 'Hymne' D. 658-662 and the 'Nachthymne' D.687, flanked by settings of the brothers Schlegel, Christian Wilhelm von Schütz (the 'Lied der Delphine D.857/1), and Aloys Wilhelm Schreiber ('Der Blumenbrief' D.622 and the astonishing 'An den Mond in einer Herbstnacht'). We finish off with 'Der Hirt auf dem Felsen' D.965, a literary hotch-potch of several poets' work, where Rubens in joined by clarinettist Nikolaus Friedrich.
Programming all these Romantic poets together might not be to everyone's taste, but it's fascinating to see how Schubert's settings vary from poem to poem. In the Novalis, two of the Geistliche Lieder are so similar and set with a simplicity and respect that, although atmospheric, rather borders on the monotonous. On the other hand, 'Ich sag' es Jedem', another of the Geistliche Lieder, ends up sounding like a distinctly unspiritual love song. Some of the songs on the disc show Schubert at his most experimental, in lengthy through-composed songs like 'An den Mond in einer Herbstnach', which Eisenlohr is right to describe as 'on of the most beautiful and perfect of Schubert's many unjustly neglected Lieder', and the Hymn 'Wenige wissen das Geheimnis der Liebe'. The latter, though, a setting of a Novalis poem laden with language at once highly religious and sensuous, cannot be said to show the composer at his most inspired.
One of the most enjoyable works on the disc is the 'Lied der Delphine', whose atmosphere is one of quick-pulsed elation and Rubens seems to revel in the operatic demands made upon her, throwing out an impressive series of top notes as the song reaches its heady conclusion. Here, though, I did wonder about Eisenlohr's tendency to slow down rather too much at the climaxes. Elsewhere, Rubens' interpretations capture extremely well the necessary sense of simplicity and her voice, while never lacking in sensuousness, can be pared down to capture the piety and innocence called for in songs such as 'Blanka' and 'Vom Mitleiden Mariä'. All her interpretative and vocal skills come together well in the final song on the disc, 'Der Hirt aud dem Felsen'. With Friedrich's plaintive clarinet, she successfully portrays the transition from romantic longing to almost Rossinian high-spirits in a delightful performance of this unusual song.
Throughout the disc, Eisenlohr's accompaniment is largely excellent. However, it's a shame not only that no texts could be included in the booklet itself, but also that the web page, where we're promised texts and translations, only includes the German texts. The recorded sound, though, is very good.
By Hugo Shirley