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Schnabel: Complete Vocal Works / Sara Couden, Jenny Lin

Release Date: 11/04/2022
Label: Steinway & Sons Catalog #: 30208
Composer:  Artur Schnabel Performer:  Sara Couden ,  Jenny Lin Number of Discs: 1

Pianist Jenny Lin is joined by contralto Sara Couden on this album of Artur Schnabel’s Complete Vocal Music, a follow up to her 2019 release, Schnabel’s Complete Piano Works for Solo Piano.

Album Credits:
Recorded April 23-25, 2022 at Samurai Hotel Recording Studio, Astoria New York.
Post-Production at Swan Studios NYC.

Producer: Andreas K. Meyer
Engineer: Andreas K. Meyer
Piano Technician: James Carney
Piano: Steinway Model D #131601

Executive Producers: Eric Feidner and Jon Feidner
Art Direction: Jackie Fugere
Design: Cover to Cover Design, Anilda Carrasquillo
Production Assistant: Renée Oakford

Read more Reviews:

Virtually all admirers and students of the thirty-two canonical piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven have been exposed to the work of pianist Artur Schnabel. Born in the Silesian region of modern Poland as the Austro-Hungarian empire of Franz Joseph neared its end, Schnabel studied in Vienna with Theodor Leschetizky and his wife Anna Yesipova, inaugurating an artistic connection to Beethoven via Leschetizky’s teacher, Carl Czerny, and making the acquaintance of Johannes Brahms, into whose selective society the teenaged prodigy was welcomed. It can be theorized that early immersion in the then-little-remembered piano sonatas of Franz Schubert lured Schnabel into the Beethoven sonatas, upon his interpretations of which his renown would ultimately be founded. Fleeing the National Socialist regime in 1933, Schnabel entered British HMV studios to record music by Beethoven, producing the first complete cycle of Beethoven’s mature sonatas. Eighty-seven years after the 1935 completion of the sonata recordings, Schnabel’s accounts remain a benchmark to which every subsequent performance is compared.

Around the turn of the Twentieth Century, a meeting in Berlin, to which city he relocated in 1898, with contralto Therese Behr proved to be doubly fortuitous, in the personal sense that she became Schnabel’s wife and in enticing the pianist into the realm of Lieder. With Schnabel at the keyboard, Behr pioneered performance of Schubert’s Winterreise by a female voice, but she also spurred her husband to compose Lieder of his own to capitalize on the quality of her voice and celebrate their relationship. Schnabel was not a prolific composer in the manner of Haydn and Mozart, but his body of work surprises by containing relatively few pieces for solo piano. His catalogue of Lieder is also not extensive, but the songs contain some of his most original writing for the instrument of which he was one of history’s greatest exponents.

Recorded for the Steinway and Sons proprietary label in a close but warm acoustic, this recital of Schnabel’s complete Lieder partners Steinway ambassador Jenny Lin with one of the Twenty-First Century’s rarest vocal commodities—a true contralto. The highest-quality recordings of Therese Behr were made when she was in her mid-fifties and offer only suggestions of the amplitude, timbre, and range of the voice in its prime. The most reliable testaments to her vocal abilities are therefore found in the songs written for her by Schnabel, Richard Strauss, and other composers. In her performances of the Schnabel lieder on this disc, Sara Couden engages her own formidable abilities in an appraisal of Behr’s artistic persona. The spirit of her predecessor’s influence on the creation of this music is omnipresent, but Couden does not endeavor to portray Behr by singing her songs. Rather, these become her songs, and she sings them with insights unique to her journey.

Composed during a span of seven years, Schnabel’s Lieder are remarkably consistent in style. Written singly but published in collections, eschewing programmatic cycles like those created by Schubert and Schumann, the songs also demonstrate fidelity to a small number of poets. The set of five Lieder für Singtimme und Klavier written between 1902 and 1906 wields the greatest textual variety amongst the Lieder, the first song, ‘Sphärengesang,’ being Schnabel’s sole setting of verses by Hieronymus Lorm, the nom de plume of Austrian poet Heinrich Landesmann. The Lied’s subtle mysticism builds from a disquieting start, evocatively rendered by Lin, and Couden imbues the vocal line with ethereal tranquility.

Both ‘Frühlingsgruss’ and ‘Morgengruss’ use lines penned by Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff, whose work provided texts for composers throughout the Nineteenth Century. Couden and Lin mold their performances of the former Lied with apt anticipation and of the latter with unaffected awe. The words of ‘Das Mädchen mit den hellen Augen’ were authored by Theodor Storm, and they are uttered with undeviating concentration on Schnabel’s clever manipulations of their sounds. Friedrich Rückert’s ‘Abfindung’ oppresses the mood of uncomplicated happiness engendered by the first four songs, the unease that lurks in the piano realized by Lin with the controlled agitation heard in Schnabel’s performances of Beethoven’s tumultuous late sonatas. Momentary doubt shudders in Couden’s vocalism before being vanquished by the abiding confidence of her interpretation of the words.

Verifiable information concerning Behr’s career as a soloist is frustratingly elusive. It can be conjectured based upon chronological possibility and vocal feasibility that she may have sung the part of the Waldtaube in Arnold Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder in the years between the work’s 1913 première and her retirement, but only the presumed suitability of the voice for the music is documented. Nevertheless, there are undeniable similarities between Schoenberg’s pre-Moses und Aron musical language and the structure of Schnabel’s Lieder. Dating from a period extending from 1899 to 1902, the ten Lieder für Stimme und Klavier published as Schnabel’s Opus 11 vary greatly in subject but are musically cohesive, intimating that, even before their marriage in 1905, the composer had gained thorough knowledge of the contours of Behr’s voice. Poems by Werner Wolffheim supplied the words for two of these songs, ‘Wunder’ and ‘Ein ferner Frauensang,’ and the texts also supply Couden and Lin with means via which to create their own poetry. Lin discerns the appropriate atmosphere for each Lied, honoring Schnabel’s markings but also listening carefully to the metamorphosing colors of Couden’s singing.

Schnabel turned to verses by Richard Dehmel for three of the Opus 11 Lieder. The evolving emotions of ‘Dann’ are limned by contralto and pianist with dauntless directness, and the contrasts between ‘Manche Nacht’ and ‘Waldnacht’ are intensified by the lightness of Lin’s pianism and the shadows that darken Couden’s vocalism. Only ‘Marienlied’ uses words by Novalis, né Friedrich von Hardenberg, but this performance affirms the efficacy of Schnabel’s treatment of the lines. Similarly, verses by Hanns Sachs and Otto Julius Bierbaum respectively appear once in Opus 11, the first in ‘Das Veilchen an den spanischen Flieder,’ bewitchingly sung, and the second in ‘Tanzlied,’ in which the dramatic thrust of every phrase is accentuated without being exaggerated. The writing of Stefan George seems to have appealed strongly to Schnabel, who sourced texts for several of his most deeply-felt Lieder from George’s work. Ideally partnered by Lin’s mercurial playing, Couden’s patrician phrasing lends ‘Dieses ist ein rechter Morgen’ particular persuasiveness. The fervor with which ‘Sieh mein Kind ich gehe’ is performed makes the love that Schnabel and Behr shared audible six decades after their deaths.

Especially in these Lieder’s most extroverted passages, the columnar voluptuousness of Couden’s voice sometimes needs greater aural space in which to reverberate than studio microphones afford, but full-voiced emoting is never sacrificed in the interest of singing to the microphone. The vocal power at Couden’s command is heard in her traversals of the seven Lieder of Schnabel’s Opus 14, their words extracted from works by Eichendorff, George, and Storm. Foreboding and resignation trouble the beauty of ‘Frühlingsdämmerung,’ Lin and Couden projecting faltering resolve, but they infuse ‘Oktoberlied’ with an air of relieved acceptance. Almost fifty years before Richard Strauss composed his Vier letzte Lieder, Schnabel addressed similar themes of battling and surrendering to time in ‘Abendständchen’ and ‘Abendlandschaft,’ two of his most affecting songs that receive two of this recording’s finest performances. The wistful serenity of Couden’s voicing of ‘Hyazinthen,’ facilitated by Lin’s wondrously Impressionistic playing, is supplanted in ‘Heisst es viel dich bitten?’ by apprehensive sobriety. These artists ensure that the gravitas of ‘Die Sperlinge’ does not become morose, never permitting tension to eclipse tenderness.

Built upon verses by Dehmel, the 1914 Notturno für Singstimme und Klavier (Opus 16) is at once an expansive, rhapsodic duet in which the piano engages in a dialogue with the voice and a chamber piece that pairs the instruments on equal footing in a twenty-two-minute sonata with words. Meandering through shifting psychological landscapes, the text is akin to a stream-of-consciousness monologue to which Schnabel’s music grants narrative continuity. Lin articulates the piano’s proto-prologue with a deceptive attitude of spontaneity, the music’s improvisatory mien masking the accuracy of her playing. Couden’s singing is no less precise, her intonation and diction exact in the Notturno and all of the Lieder. The seamless integration of her registers and centered placement of vowels are reminiscent of the singing of Ernestine Schumann-Heink, heard on recordings good enough to substantiate that her reputation was warranted.

Compelling in every selection, Couden’s expressivity in the Notturno is incredible. Schnabel’s angular melodic lines, at times seeming to lack continuity on the page, are revealed in Couden’s performance to be diligently contoured to the emotional currents of the words. In each of Schnabel’s songs, Couden and Lin exhibit the manner in which the interactions between voice and piano parallel the marriage of music and words. Perhaps Schnabel did not purposefully glorify the symbolism of this interdependence, but a husband’s adoration for his wife permeates his vocal works. More than a century after their devotion inspired these songs, the Schnabels would surely rejoice in this unforeseen fruit of their union, a recital in which extraordinary artists of another generation rapturously reawaken their love .

-- Voix des Arts

The history of pianist-composers is as old as the history of the piano itself – older, actually, if you think of “keyboardists-composers.” And of course it includes some of the greatest composers of all time (Mozart, Beethoven) plus a slew of noteworthy Romantic-era-and-afterwards names (Liszt, Thalberg, Alkan, Rachmaninoff and many others). In almost all cases, though, the musicians end up being considered primarily one thing or the other – performer or creator – and their other area of interest gets short shrift from posterity. That is certainly the case with Artur Schnabel (1882-1951), one of the great pianists of the 20th century and, not incidentally, a composer of considerable skill. Recent years have seen more attention paid to Schnabel’s compositions, but not much more, and that is one reason a new Steinway & Sons CD featuring Sara Couden and Jenny Lin is so welcome. Another reason is that the songs heard on this disc – which is the first complete recording of Schnabel’s vocal works – are worthy in and of themselves. A third reason is that the CD includes not only 22 songs but also the fascinating Notturno for Voice and Piano, a 1914 setting of Richard Dehmel’s poem of the same name. Schnabel wrote the poem for his wife, Therese Behr-Schnabel, who was a contralto, and the two often performed the work together. The piano part is quite complex, capable of being performed on its own as a kind of improvisational piece, while the vocal part demands excellence in the low range and a firm understanding of the Symbolist text, which involves a dream of death and a thankful awakening from it. Notturno is primarily atonal and dissonant, but Schnabel includes traditional tonality in some sections – and there are no bar lines, which means the work’s structure is fluid and complex. This is not a short piece – it runs almost 23 minutes in the Couden/Lin performance – but it never disappoints in its variability, unusual treatment of the material, and above all its tonal changeableness. This work alone, which Couden and Lin handle with great sensitivity and expressiveness, would make this CD worthwhile, but there is considerably more here. The disc includes the world première recording of Five Songs for Voice and Piano (1902-06) as well as performances of Ten Songs for Voice and Piano (1899-1901/02) and Seven Songs for Voice and Piano (1901-02/03). All these song sets are essentially late Romantic in concept and execution, although the five not previously recorded are somewhat more adventurous than the others in structure and tonality; one, interestingly, sets words by Friedrich Rückert, who was so much a part of Mahler’s earlier creative period. If there is a single theme that recurs throughout Schnabel’s song sets, it is that of time passing both seasonally (Spring Greeting, Twilight of Spring, October Song) and during each individual day (This Is a Proper Morning, Evening Serenade, Evening Landscape). The quality of the poetry is generally on the mundane side, but Schnabel treats every text sensitively and with feeling, producing songs that are very much of their time but are certainly deserving of as much attention as others from the same period. Couden and Lin make a first-rate case for all this music, and if Schnabel will always be remembered more for his pianism than his compositions, this disc shows that when as well-performed as they are here, his songs have something to offer that goes beyond his exceptional keyboard prowess.


"The initial driving force behind this recording is the pianist Jenny Lin, who was then also able to inspire the contralto Sara Couden for the first complete recording of Schnabel’s vocal works. Among them, as a first recording, are Five Songs for medium voice and piano. Schnabel is known as one of the most important pianists of the 20th century. But he also composed, to a certain extent secretly. In doing so, he challenged himself and pushed the boundaries of music as he saw it.

These works are probably due to the fact that he had married the German contralto Therese Behr after performing together musically. His songs are characterized by a variety of styles, ranging from close to romanticism to the personally formulated. Yet Schnabel can be credited with a sensitive and inspired delivery of the texts. The most personal piece is the Notturno. It is reminiscent of Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht from several points of view, for instance in the choice of Dehmel as poet. And the closeness to the Second Viennese School is unmistakable in the musical performance as well. One may also be reminded of Richard Strauss’ Notturno. However, Schnabel proceeds from the edges of tonality in his composition.

Likewise with the other songs, expressiveness and innovation, as well as the certainty of design, make for exciting and challenging scores that stimulate both singers and pianists. However, since Schnabel himself was very familiar with the piano, these parts come naturally to the hands. In the early songs, simplicity and directness predominate. In the five unpublished songs from the same creative period, it is surprising how subtly, but noticeably more freely Schnabel handles the structure here.

Jenny Lin had already recorded piano works by Schnabel and can thus contribute her experience to the composer. In addition to the already applied interpretive composition, she therefore succeeds in a sensitively formulated performance that does justice to her own needs as well as those of the singer.

Couden, in this first exposure to Schnabel’s music, perceived it as emotionally straightforward. Her approach accordingly takes the text of the nocturne, which is marked by despair, directly and simply. But she also applies this standard overall, offering the songs in a chamber-music approach that fully carries these works."

-- Pizzicato (Translated from the German)

This Steinway & Sons release is the debut album of contralto Sara Couden. The album wasn't her idea, and indeed she was, like most people, unfamiliar with the fact that the great pianist Artur Schnabel was a song composer (and also wrote three symphonies). However, her rich, slightly smoky voice was an ideal choice for this material. Schnabel wrote these songs for his wife, Irene Behr. Charmingly, the two met when Schnabel, at a mountain resort, commented to a friend on the size of some boots in the corridor, only to be accosted by Behr the next morning, saying, "I heard you talking about my big feet." The songs are thus highly idiomatic for the alto voice, but they are more than that. Most of them date from between 1900 and 1910, from early in Schnabel's career, and they show a composer alert to the ideas in contemporary German poetry and seeking fresh ways to express them. The best is saved for last, with Notturno for voice and piano, Op. 16, set to a long poem by Richard Dehmel. Dehmel was the muse of Schoenberg (in Verklärte Nacht) and other members of the Second Viennese School, and Schnabel was obviously aware of this; although he is not in Schoenberg territory, he pushes the tonality quite a bit. Strauss also set this rather dark text. Couden's reading is direct and affecting, with good control over the lengthy song. Any of these pieces could be programmed with Schoenberg or Berg, and it is a shame that they aren't better known. This beautifully recorded album, made at the Samurai Hotel Recording Studio in Queens, may change that situation.

-- AllMusic Guide

Every release from the Steinway & Sons music label is special, but this one impresses for even more than the usual reasons. Naturally the Steinway piano played on the album sounds terrific, and the production of the recording, its performances captured at Samurai Hotel Recording Studio in Astoria in April 2022, is excellent too. But the seventy-eight-minute release is even more commendable for the performers it features, pianist Jenny Lin and contralto Sara Couden, and for a set-list that presents the vocal works of Artur Schnabel (1882-1951) in their entirety and includes the world premiere recording of his Five Songs for Voice and Piano.

Lin's established herself as a pianist of exceptional technical command and expressivity. She's known for performances of Glass's etudes, but her range is broad. She's recorded Chopin's nocturnes, an album of Broadway song arrangements, and a release featuring transcriptions of the songs of Chinese pop singer Teresa Teng; Lin also recently recorded an album of Kancheli music for Steinway & Sons with accordionist Guy Klucevsek. Of particular relevance is the fact that she earlier engaged with Schnabel in releasing an album of his complete solo piano music and is thus well primed for this collaboration with Couden. Possessing a warm, resplendent voice, the American contralto is recognized as a sterling interpreter of opera, oratorio, chamber music, and art song and is a sought-after recitalist. Her performances, which have taken place at the Metropolitan Opera, Carnegie Hall, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, are distinguished by deep sensitivity to the composer's text and nuanced readings. In contrast to Lin, Complete Vocal Works presents Couden's debut as an interpreter of Schnabel's music, and it's a challenge she meets splendidly.

Interestingly, Schnabel is better known as a pianist than composer and specifically for his association with the piano music of Beethoven but also that of Mozart, Brahms, and Schubert. Yet he also created a significant amount of material, including three symphonies, five string quartets, a piano concerto, chamber works, and over thirty pieces for solo keyboard, the latter recorded by Lin in 2019. A key development occurred in 1905 when he married Therese Behr (1876-1959), a German contralto he'd worked with as accompanist. The material presented on Complete Vocal Works was written for her and thus possesses a powerful personal dimension.

While Ten Songs for Voice and Piano, Op. 11 and Seven Songs for Voice and Piano, Op. 14, written between 1899 and 1903, generally adhere to the conventions of the late-Romantic idiom, there are surprises. A broad range of styles and moods is explored in the twenty-two songs that compose the three cycles, but even more striking is Notturno (1914), an audacious, twenty-three-minute travelogue first recorded in 1985 by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with composer Aribert Reimann at the piano. Lin contends that “it should be in the repertoire for singers,” and it's easy to concur after hearing her and Couden's engrossing rendition. While no one will mistake it for a work by Schoenberg, there is in the dreamlike evocation, its text by Richard Dehmel, a kind of harmonic daring reminiscent of the spirit that birthed Pelleas und Melisande, Verklärte Nacht, and Pierrot Lunaire.

One detects in the opening Five Songs for Voice and Piano (1902-06) the composer disentangling himself ever so subtly from the harmonic conventions of late-Romantic song (in its closing “Abfindung” in particular), something pursued most boldly in Notturno. Reflecting the breadth that characterizes a Schnabel song cycle, this opening set moves from the sombre drama of “Sphärengesang” (which invites comparison to Richard Strauss) to the comparatively rhapsodic “Frühlingsgruss” and innocently joyful “Das Mädchen mit den hellen Augen.” Moments of beauty emerge in the other cycles too, among them “Dann,” “Marienlied,” and “Waldnacht” in the ten-song set and “Frühling,” “Abendständchen,” and “Heisst es viel dich bitten?” in the seven.

If Schnabel's settings don't radically re-invent the Romantic art song, they're nevertheless sophisticated, lyrical, artfully crafted, and emotionally resonant. His engagement with the texts and the sensitive music he wrote to complement them makes for rewarding listening, especially when Lin and Couden give themselves so fully to the performances. Fluid, vivid, and probing, their interpretations make the songs always feel as if they're directly connecting with the listener.

-- Textura

"Though Schnabel’s career and reputation as a pianist and pedagogue overshadow his compositions, creating music remained a lifelong pursuit. ‘Officially I have remained a pianist’, he wrote in his autobiography, ‘although secretly I always did and still do compose.’ At 19 he made his debut as soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic in his own large-scale Piano Concerto in D minor, and his catalogue includes three symphonies, five string quarter and other chamber music, plus more than 30 pieces for solo piano.

When he married the celebrated German contralto Therese Behr (six years his senior) in 1905, he was 23 and they had been recital partners for years. The young Schnabel wrote his early Songs for her, and they are sophisticated achievements. Setting texts by his contemporaries Rchard Dehmel and Stefan George, as well as such earlier poets as Eichendorff and Ruckert, the songs are lucid and affecting, their late- Romantic tonal language keenly tailored to the words. The piano parts are imaginative and resourceful (eg. the shadowy octaves in ‘Fruhlingsdammerung’, the stillness established in ‘Abendlandschaft’ or the evocative figurations in 'Die Sperlinge’) and never over-written. Schnabel was obviously a composer of substance and impressive craftsmanship, though some of the early songs don’t quite escape a whiff of conventionality.

A stylistic breakthrough occurs in the far more expansive and expressionistic ‘Notturno’ (1914), a 22-minute setting of a Dehmel poem. This provides an interesting reminder that while Schnabel composed atonal music, he rarely performed works by his contemporaries (though he did participate in one of the early performances of Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire). In 'Notturno’, Schnabel all but abandons a Romantic tonal vocabulary, and the rhythm flows freely without bar lines. The style is reminiscent of Schoenberg's early atonalism before Pierrot lunaire, and the work assigns equal roles to the pianist and singer, as in all of Schnabel’s songs.

American contralto Sara Couden and pianist Jenny Lin together offer beauty of line and sound, and deliver each song with impressive unity, commitment and understanding, and careful attention to detail.

-- Gramophone

In his book The Great Pianists, music critic Harold Schonberg devoted an entire chapter to Austrian Artur Schnabel (1882–1951), the first to record all 32 Beethoven sonatas. (I especially cherish his soul-searching Schubert recordings.) Yet now almost forgotten is that Schnabel also composed – a lot! – including three symphonies and five string quartets.

This first complete collection of his vocal music memorializes Schnabel’s relationship with contralto Therese Behr, who brought her young accompanist (she was six years older) to public attention. The visually odd couple – Behr six feet tall, Schnabel five-four – married in 1905.

Schnabel composed 22 songs for Behr between 1899 and 1906, influenced by Brahms’ warm lyricism, rather than the febrile emotionalism of Mahler or Richard Strauss. Making her CD debut, American contralto Sara Couden, with her dark sepia timbre, perfectly suits the songs’ restrained, autumnal moods, prevalent even when the texts rhapsodize about the beauties of nature or love’s joys and sorrows. Pianist Jenny Lin admirably provides pianist-composer Schnabel’s often elaborate accompaniments.

Schnabel wasn’t immune, however, to the stylistic revolutions of Schoenberg and Stravinsky preceding World War I. His 22-minute Notturno, Op.16 (1914), written for Behr, marked a significant departure from his previous compositions. In Richard Dehmel’s lengthy poem, the narrator recounts an agonized dream about a dead friend. Dispensing with bar-lines, Schnabel’s music creates metric ambiguity along with discordant touches of the atonality he later firmly embraced. It’s a compelling musical psychodrama.

-- The WholeNote
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