The big hitters of 19th-century song are well known, but how did they earn their reputations, who were their respected contemporaries, and how did the art form progress over time?

It’s always been easy for a competent, or even an inspired composer, to get buried by the sheer overwhelming enthusiasm for a Beethoven or a Brahms, so a chance to examine the development of song from 1810 to 1910, decade by decade, might be expected to throw up a few surprises. And so it proves in the first of an excellently curated series from accompanist Malcolm Martineau and a stellar quintet of leading singers.

Taking Schubert’s miracle years – 1815 and 1816 – as its starting point, Martineau chooses 16 of his finest as a peg on which to hang a thoroughgoing and eclectic selection of the greatest Lieder and song that were around at the time. Ranging across Europe, we visit Spain, Italy, Czechoslovakia, German  and France in a song lover’s magical mystery tour.

The under-recorded Canadian tenor Michael Schade gets the lion’s share of the disc and the majority of the Schubert. Like Peter Schreier, to whom he bears a striking vocal resemblance, he’s a dab hand with a strophic song, making each verse subtly different, yet never overplaying his hand. Try his An den Mond for a masterclass in spinning a lyrical line. He also sings a superb set of four Beethoven Lieder, a moody little gem by Weber and four Goethe songs by Václav Tomášek (who the great German poet purportedly preferred over Schubert). 

Sylvia Schwartz revels in three innocent little pearls by Fernando Sor, usually thought of as exclusively a composer for the guitar. Her clean, bright soprano is blessed with perfect diction, if just occasionally taxed. The veteran Ann Murray, voice untouched by time, sings a pair of songs by Viotti, Lorna Anderson sings a charming Bolleros by the forgotten Sophie Gail and Florian Boesch is hypnotic in Schubert’s Das Grab.

Martineau’s musical imagination conjures just the right mood and pace for each song

The crowning glory of this disc though is Martineau himself. His sensitivity to each singer, his musical imagination in conjuring just the right mood and pace for each song, and his ability to imbue even the lesser-curiosities with a sense of freshness and invention is a constant delight. Just listen to his delicate suspensions in a song like Schubert’s Seligkeit or the profound resonances he draws out of An den Mond.

This first disc, with voices and piano caught most naturally by the Vivat engineers, is a riveting listen, whetting the appetite for the next nine decades.