Schubert: Lieder

Elizabeth Watts; Roger Vignoles (RCA Red Seal 88697 329322)

7 December 2008 3 stars

Watts SchubertWe are told that in preparing the programme for this, her debut disc for RCA, Elizabeth Watts listened to all of Schubert's Lieder before making her choice. As a result, we have a few lesser-known songs thrown in with some regular favourites.

Watts of course has a string of very high profile competition wins to her credit including the 2006 Ferrier and the Rosenblatt Song Prize at the 2007 Cardiff Singer of the World, which brought her to the attention of a wider audience. This disc reinforces the impression of an artist of sensitivity and taste, whether or not she has the star quality to repay RCA's faith in her only time will tell.

However, there's something reassuringly old-fashioned about this programme, dictated, it seems, by personal choice and not with any didactic aim in mind. If anything, there's an emphasis on strophic songs where simplicity of melodic inspiration makes up for any lack in drama or through-composed sophistication.

There's no 'Gretchen am Spinnrade', for example, but rather a succession of songs that seem well suited to Watts's temperament and a voice which, bright but not brittle, is a joy to listen to in repeated verses. With Roger Vignoles as her characteristically urbane and sensitive accompanist, there's a lot to enjoy for anyone wanting to savour Schubert at his most straight-forward and melodically inspired.  

Among the better known songs we have a gorgeously floated 'Nacht und Träume' and a ravishing performance of 'Sei mir gegrüßt' in which Watts soars up the repeated phrases with effortless ease and seductive timbre. Her account of 'Die Forelle' is fresh and engaging and in the brief 'Die Männer sind méchant!' that closes the disc Watts displays a lighter touch. Elsewhere, although the voice is radiant and enjoyable on its own terms, Watts's interpretations can sound a touch generalised. Partly at fault is her German which is very good but often insufficiently clear or dramatically engaging. This means that two longer songs, 'Suleika I' and 'Thekla: eine Geisterstimme', are less successful: the first is a bit short on the tense agitation it describes, the second attractively sung but not suggesting very much in the way of emotional background.

In several of the other strophic songs, too, Watts is happy to let the voice do the work. The results are often beautiful but, in 'Nähe des Geliebten' for example, can be monotonous – Schubert's melodies are inspired but need more ideas from the interpreter to come across as more than simply pretty – and it's often difficult to pick out the words without referring to the printed text.

So, this Schubert recital is in many ways an auspicious debut for Watts on her new label. She is undoubtedly a fine singer and no-one looking for bright, appealing accounts of some of Schubert's loveliest songs is likely to be very disappointed. For better or worse, though, audiences now have a right to expect more in terms of the pointing of the German, varying the interpretation from one strophe to another, and dramatic engagement. As it is, these performances never leave one in any doubt of Schubert's unrivalled melodic gift but only occasionally hint at the more profound nature of his genius.

RCA's sound is sumptuous but realistic and thankfully full texts and translations have been included.

By Hugo Shirley