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|Robert Holl (bass-baritone), Roger Vignoles (piano)|
|The Songmakers' Almanac, Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano)|
This masterpiece is one of the great song achievements of Schubert's final year, but it still receives a bad press from certain critics who seem determined to blame the composer for bad and self-indulgent performances of a work they take to be too long and lacking in incident. But how could Der Winterabend be anything other than long? Winter evenings, by definition, are long—and that is part of their magic. The slow unfolding of these musical mysteries, a tour of musings and memories, is not to be hurried. This is one of those works which brings home to us that we live at a hectic pace in our own benighted century; even by the standards of Schubert's Vienna this portrait of Styrian country life seems to defy the haste and pressure of the metropolis. As Schubert wrote of his home city: 'There is so much confused chatter … and one rarely or never achieves any inward contentment.' In this song we can hear his delight in one of the few safe havens of artistic sympathy he found outside Vienna—the home of the Pachler family in Graz. 'In Graz,' Schubert wrote, 'I soon recognised an artless and sincere way of being together.' It was Marie Pachler who re-introduced Schubert to the poetry of her fellow Styrian Karl von Leitner (he had set one Leitner poem already in 1823) and this song is aglow with the warmth of domesticity and small town life. The singer could well be one of the citizens addressed by the winter traveller (in Im Dorfe from Winterreise) but Schubert, a few months after completing his great cycle, allows the bourgeois world of comfortable carpet slippers to find a spokesman of its own. With unerring accuracy the composer suggests the singer's maturity of age and experience; a mellow flow of contemplation (for the song has also suffered from performances which swoon to the point of stasis) unfolds in as leisurely a manner as a spiral of smoke from a pipe (and we know that Schubert himself was a smoker).
The comfort of being indoors on a winter evening is marvellously conveyed in the introduction. The joy and security of the fireside on a stormy night was to be given rapturous expression twelve years later in Schumann's Kerner setting Lust der Sturmnacht, but there are no raging elements here, only the gently falling snow. Perhaps this is what Schubert means to convey in what Capell calls the 'patter of soft semiquavers' in the accompaniment, as soothing as the sound of gentle rain falling on the roof at bedtime. This throbbing undertow pervades the song and is perhaps the secret of its hypnotic restfulness; it is the discreet work of those inner fingers of the pianist's right hand which are often asked to simulate the work of a string quartet's second violin and viola. The little finger sings the first violin's beautiful melody which is later taken up by the voice and which is the main theme of this nocturnal impromptu. What a skilfully constructed theme this is—a melody in B flat major of a great span, uninterrupted in its flow and unpunctuated by rests. It begins on a contented plateau of repeated notes in the first bar, and then lifts a third, only to fall with a sigh, a pattern (stillness followed by the stretching out of longing resolving into acceptance) which is then repeated and developed in sequence before being rounded off by a tiny cadential figure of four semiquavers. This last gruppetto is a motif which varies with the greatest ingenuity at the close of each reappearance of the refrain, and which is a tonal analogue for 'sinnen', the process of turning thoughts over in the mind. Only Schubert could suggest the exquisite combination of contentment and pain outlined by this great melody. We are left in no doubt that these notes represent the thoughts (for this is an interior drama) of a tranquilly sitting figure. We will later discover in the denouement of the song's final pages the reason for the ache in the music—and also its hard-won joy.
We begin by listening, through the narrator's ears, to the world about us. When we hear that the tradesmen of the town have stopped their work, that the people are tired (the stretch and yawn of the turn at 'und ist müd') and that the street noises are muffled by a blanket of snow, we are ready to begin (from Verse 2) a gradual retreat from the here and now. The solitary thinker needs to find his way into the past in order to rediscover his precious memories. He moves through one harmonic portal after another on a journey which only Schubert could arrange. The first of these important doorways is the magical modulation from the home key of B flat into G major which leads us into the central panel of the song at 'Wie thut mir so wohl.' The narrator sits in the dark (the piano's commentary after 'der selige Frieden' recalls the writing in the left hand in Der blinde Knabe) until he has a visitor—the arrival of the light of the moon at 'nur der Mondenschein kommt.' This prompts a further journey from G into E flat major (the same key in which 'es zieht ein Mondenschatten' appears to lighten the darkness in the first song of Winterreise) and this initiates an extended soliloquy about the narrator's heavenly guest. During the course of this there is another breathtaking modulation (at 'Ist gar ein stiller, ein lieber Besuch'), this time into D major, and we have reached the song's inner sanctum of tranquillity and reflection. The music gradually retraces its steps to B flat major via G major, and to what at first seems to be a straightforward recapitulation of the opening theme at 'Ich sitze dann stumm.' But Schubert has not yet played the final hand of the evening: the first inversion of F minor under 'denke zurück' moves us into the past by steering us away from a predictable A natural in the bass. Instead we hear something a little deeper; a shift of harmony is here also a time shift.
The real recapitulation is soon at hand and everything comes into focus as the narrator is at last in touch with profound memories of his beloved wife, lost to him in person perhaps, but now alive once more in his mind. Significantly, she makes her reappearance not in some distant tonality but in the home key, her presence signified by a glorious counter-melody in the piano at 'Denke an sie' (surely a deliberate extra variation of the B flat Rosamunde music which inspired the piano Impromptu Op 142) and this serves as a descant to our song's by now familiar vocal theme. This passionate combination transfigures what we are now made to realise has only been half of the whole, half of the music for a story of shared lives; as Derby's theme joins Joan's we briefly hear the new (or rather very old) complete story. The memory of happiness prompts a brief moment of exaltation, for there is life in the old boy yet. The vocal line is turned on its head: instead of F rising note by note to B flat (which we have heard on the first appearance of 'Denke an sie, an das Glck der Minne') those words are repeated somewhat operatically, starting on the F an octave higher (the highest and longest note in the piece) and falling to B flat via an affecting appogiatura on the word 'sie'. Just for a moment we hear the energy and gallantry of a young lover as the passion of time gone by reasserts itself. The moment soon passes and only memories remain; the motif of four contemplative semiquavers plus a plaintive cadence is repeated again and again for 'und sinne'—in thus embroidering 'und' Schubert never wrote a more eloquent melisma on a seemingly unessential word. The postlude stretches upwards to embrace the distant key of D major for one last time, but with a smile (or is it perhaps tears?) sinks back into the armchair comfort and solitude of B flat. In this quintessential portrait of Biedermeier life nothing has happened of very great import. It is only the sympathetic listener who will detect in it a masterful musical evocation of those feelings of which Hardy wrote, when the 'fragile frame at eve' is shaken with 'throbbings of noontide.'
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1992
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