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One of the leading mezzos of our day in a Schubert recital which offers seventy minutes of pure pleasure. The twenty-one songs recorded here are among Schubert’s finest, from Erlkönig (written in the composer’s annus mirabilis of 1815) to Leise flehen (which dates from his final summer).
Then there was the intensely musical quality of Goethe’s verses, with many of his poems written to be sung rather than spoken. Schubert set many of Goethe’s poems for all time. Yet the Weimar sage, notoriously conservative in his musical tastes, showed barely a flicker of interest in Schubert’s songs until the very end of his life, when he warmed to a performance of Erlkönig by the celebrated prima donna Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient. By then the composer was already dead.
With its favourite Goethean image of the moon as a source of peace and healing, An den Mond is a beautiful, troubled love poem to Goethe’s mistress Charlotte von Stein, wife of the Duke of Weimar’s Master of the Horse. Alice Coote and Julius Drake frame their programme with the two very different settings Schubert made of this poem, one dating from 1815, the other (probably) from 1819. As one might expect, the later song (D296) realizes more fully the poem’s complexity and inwardness. To take just one detail, in the final verse the moon shines high in the piano part (with the song’s serene opening melody) while the voice sinks mysteriously to its lowest register as the poet speaks of ‘the labyrinth of the heart’. Yet Schubert’s simple strophic setting of August 1815, D259—one of five Goethe songs he composed in a single day—has a touching innocence and charm, with something of the eighteenth-century Romanze in its gracefully flowing melody.
In the first of his two ‘Wandrers Nachtlied’ songs, Der du von dem Himmel bist (1815), Schubert responds to Goethe’s prayer for inner peace with music that mingles classical poise with contemplative ecstasy, culminating in the exquisite twofold invocation ‘Süsser Friede, / Komm, ach komm in meine Brust!’
‘I lived in a fantasy world and was on the way to becoming an incurable daydreamer’, wrote the Saxon poet Ernst Schulze (1789-1817) of his schooldays. Despite this moment of clarity, Schulze did indeed live in a world in which the boundaries between the real and the imagined were increasingly hazy. As a student he shared Don Giovanni’s ‘mille e tre’ attitude to women, notching up a string of casual conquests while pursuing the daughter of an archaeology professor, Cäcilie Tychsen. Schulze’s campaign to seduce Cäcilie failed; and when she died of tuberculosis, aged just eighteen, she became idealized as his lost bride-to-be, saviour and Muse.
Conveniently for the fantasizing poet, Cäcilie had a sister, Adelheid, to whom he quickly transferred his affections. Until his own early death, likewise of tuberculosis, Schulze embroidered his fragmentary, largely one-sided relationship with the reluctant Adelheid in the poems published in his Poetisches Tagebuch (‘Verse Journal’). Schubert set ten of the poems in 1825/6, among which Auf der Bruck and Im Frühling have always been popular. Inscribed ‘On 31 March 1815’, Schulze’s Im Frühling recalls a walk with Adelheid by a mountain lake in the summer of 1813. Was their closeness real or imagined? No matter: the poet’s nostalgic recollections inspire one of Schubert’s most lovable songs. The accompaniment is fashioned as a set of free variations on the gently ambling tune of the keyboard introduction, while the singer, as if lost in reverie, enters with a new melody of her own.
The macabre ballad Der Zwerg (1822) is Schubert’s most concentrated example of a genre he cultivated from his early teens. Matthäus von Collin’s poem mingles mystery and brutality, with suggestions of sexual obsession and sadomasochism. Beginning with a haunting evocation of the eerily fading light, Schubert’s song is made all the more terrifying by its subtle understatement. Der Zwerg is powerfully unified by two leitmotifs: a four-note ‘fate’ motif akin to that in Beethoven’s fifth symphony and Schubert’s own ‘Unfinished’ symphony (virtually contemporary with Der Zwerg), and a contorted, angular figure (first heard at ‘Da tritt der Zwerg zur Königin’) depicting the dwarf’s physical and mental torment.
Shortly after Schubert’s death in November 1828, his brother Ferdinand sent two groups of lieder, to poems by Heinrich Heine and Ludwig Rellstab, to the publisher Tobias Haslinger. Haslinger duly issued them, appending the Seidl setting Die Taubenpost to avoid the unlucky thirteen. His sentimental title for the collection, Schwanengesang (‘Swansong’), was commercially shrewd. But the only link between the Heine and Rellstab groups is that they were composed—or at least completed—during Schubert’s final summer.
Most famous of the Rellstab songs is Ständchen, which has survived countless kitsch arrangements to remain the most bewitching of Schubert’s many guitar-accompanied serenades. The minor key, and the piano’s yearning echoes, gives the song an undertow of sadness, while the singer’s long-drawn-out sigh on the final ‘beglücke mich!’, with a turn from major back to minor, suggests disillusion rather than hope.
The waltzing Seligkeit (1816) would seem to have all the makings of a Schubertian winner. Yet, bafflingly, it remained virtually unknown until it was published in 1895. Between the wars it became something of a party piece of the soprano Elisabeth Schumann; and today this delightfully blithe—and very Viennese—vision of paradise is one of Schubert’s most popular ‘feel-good’ songs, and a favourite encore number.
The saturnine, depressive—and ultimately suicidal—Johann Mayrhofer (1787-1836) was the only member of Schubert’s own circle whose poetry went beyond fluent Romantic cliché. A leitmotif of so many of his poems is the yearning for an impossible otherness, and the alienation of the artist from society. In Abendstern the evening star becomes a metaphor for the poet’s own social and spiritual isolation. Permeated by a hypnotic four-note rhythm, Schubert’s bleak, laconic song of 1824 hovers between minor and major to symbolize the gulf between reality and the unattainable ideal.
A favourite during Schubert’s lifetime and ever since, the setting of Matthias Claudius’s Der Tod und das Mädchen (1817) reminds us that life in the disease-ridden Vienna of the early nineteenth century could be brutally cut short at any moment. Schubert here writes what is in effect a miniature operatic scena. The terrified girl struggles vainly in agitato recitative. Then Death advances inexorably, stern yet consolatory, singing a solemn priestly chant against the piano-as-organ. Schubert capitalized on the song’s fame when he used the piano introduction as a theme for variations in his D minor string quartet, D810.
Composed in the astonishingly prolific Liederjahr of 1816, the Litanei auf das Fest Aller Seelen (i.e. 2 November) is one of those Schubertian miracles whose profundity seems out of all proportion to its simplicity of means. Its beautifully sculpted melody, at once elegiac and consoling, sounds like Italianate bel canto filtered through Schubert’s own sensibility. Between the serene refrain framing each verse, sombre chromatic harmonies hint at the ‘fearful torment’ and ‘tears … without number’ of Johann Georg Jacobi’s poem. Could the nineteen-year-old composer have been remembering his dead mother here?
Like so many of Goethe’s poems, Rastlose Liebe is directly autobiographical, prompted by an unseasonal snowstorm in the Thuringian Forest in May 1776 and his new passion for Charlotte von Stein. Schubert’s song of May 1815—another perennial favourite—is one of his driving moto perpetuo horse rides. It sweeps breathlessly from the turbulent, chromatically unstable opening, through the (slightly) calmer central section (‘Alle das Neigen / Von Herzen zu Herzen’), heralded by a colourful key change, to a deliriously exultant climax on the key word ‘Liebe’.
With its characteristic theme of the beauty and oneness of all things—man, nature and the divine—Ganymed was one of the most exalted Goethe poems set by Schubert. His song of 1817 vividly illuminates each phase of the poet’s pantheistic vision, from the radiant serenity of the spring morning, through the youth’s awakening ardour and anticipation, to his final heavenly transfiguration, in a key remote from the earthly longing of the opening.
The ever-popular An Silvia (1826) sets the famous lyric from Act IV of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, where it is sung to Lady Silvia, daughter of the Duke of Milan, by a group of hired musicians. Schubert’s song has a captivating verve and grace, with the piano right hand imitating a mandolin and the singer’s shapely legato line counterpointed with cheeky staccato figures in the keyboard bass. The rediscovery of Schubert’s autograph manuscript in 1969 revealed that the piano’s echoing phrases, which add so much to the song’s charm, were an inspired afterthought.
In 1822, before his health was undermined by the first symptoms of syphilis, prospects looked good in Vienna for the twenty-five-year-old Schubert. And in Der Musensohn he surely identified with the young Goethe’s ecstatic celebration of individualism and creative vitality, tempered in the final verse by a longing for release through love. The song’s irresistible, airborne elan is enhanced by the piquant Schubertian shifts between keys a third apart for alternate verses.
Lachen und Weinen is a setting of verses from Friedrich Rückert’s Östliche Rosen (‘Eastern roses’), a volume of Persian-inspired poetry directly influenced by Goethe’s West-östlicher Divan. Schubert paints with delicious economy and grace the young lover’s rapid mood swings, from major-keyed happiness to minor-keyed wistfulness and (with the equivalent of a smiling shrug at ‘Ist mir selb’ nicht bewusst’) back again.
Erlkönig dates from Schubert’s annus mirabilis of 1815, in which he composed over 140 lieder, often several in a single day. The poem comes from a little play with music, Die Fischerin, which Goethe had written for the Weimar court in 1782. The fisher-girl of the title, Dortchen, sings the ballad softly to herself one evening as she mends her nets. What Goethe expected (and, in Weimar, got) was a simple, quasi-folk tune repeated for each verse. Small wonder, then, that he was baffled by Schubert’s setting, which hijacks the poem with a radical, through-composed structure, feverish galloping rhythms and a searing dramatic power that culminates in the coup of the final stunned recitative. Published as Schubert’s Op 1, Erlkönig remained his most popular song throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth.
Dating from the winter of 1822/3, Schubert’s setting of Matthäus von Collin’s Nacht und Träume is his most sublime treatment of a favourite Romantic theme: the power of night and the unconscious (and, by extension, death) to reveal to us a better world. The sense of numinous nocturnal stillness is mysteriously deepened by the dip to the key of the flat sixth (B major to G major in the original version for high voice) at the words ‘Die belauschen sie mit Lust’.
If many of the poems Schubert chose—often by his friends—were second- or third-rate, he knew exactly what he needed to fire his imagination: a clearly evoked atmosphere or emotion, even a single image. The sounds and rhythms of water virtually guaranteed a memorable song, as in the barcarolle Auf dem Wasser zu singen (1823), to verses by the unsnappily named Friedrich Leopold, Count of Stolberg-Stolberg. The song’s cascading piano figuration simultaneously suggests the play of sunlight on the shimmering waves and the poet’s restless yearning. At the end of each verse the piano emerges gloriously from minor to major beneath a long-held note from the singer—an inspired musical symbol of the soul’s longing to escape the flux of time.
Im Abendrot (?1825), written to verses by the obscure Pomeranian schoolmaster Karl Lappe, is suffused with the Romantic pantheism that was a crucial element in the adult Schubert’s religious outlook. This is perhaps the most moving of his sunset songs, a compound of hymnic grandeur, tenderness and mystery that demands supreme control of legato.
In 1820, with a growing reputation in Vienna and beyond, Schubert had good reason to echo the sentiments of Ludwig Uhland’s Frühlingsglaube. A few years later Felix Mendelssohn composed an aptly excitable setting of the poem. In Schubert’s hands, though, the poet’s untrammelled optimism becomes tender, tremulous hope, with minor-keyed shadows at the heart’s remembered pain (‘Nun, armes Herze’) before a climax of rapturous longing.
Goethe famously wrote the second of his ‘Wandrers Nachtlied’ poems, Über allen Gipfeln, on the wall of the Duke of Weimar’s hunting chalet in the Thuringian hills while contemplating a late-summer sunset. The poem moves majestically from inanimate nature, through the vegetable and animal worlds, to the human. Schubert’s song of circa 1822 (as so often, the composer’s manuscript is lost) catches Goethe’s sublime poignancy and directness in a mere fourteen bars. The piano’s barely palpable syncopations at ‘Spürest du / Kaum einen Hauch’ suggest the faintest stirring in the treetops before the soft, transfigured horn calls of the close.
Richard Wigmore © 2022