For Schubert, and for many of his contemporaries in the high Romantic-period, the promised land was always somewhere else, in the Classical or perhaps the Medieval past, in a future of perfect harmony with nature, in a happy moment that receded as soon as it was sensed, always somewhere beyond the transience of every day, of life itself. Schubert, like his contemporary Keats who died even younger, was often in his songs also ‘half in love with easeful death’. For this disc Florian Boesch and Roger Vignoles, two of the best performers of Lieder in our time, have assembled a recital of songs, outside the cycles, which reflect in different ways this pervasive nostalgia or tentative hope for a resting place that perhaps once was or will be.
The wanderer, the solitary outsider who travels towards some never-to-be-realized goal, is the theme of the chosen songs, and the recital begins with the most popular of Schubert’s wistful depictions of this figure, his early setting of Georg Philipp Schmidt’s self-indulgent poem Der Wanderer. Boesch sings this with the gentle sadness which will pervade most of the songs that follow, his rich, true baritone voice reflective rather than assertive, the words all the more moving for the restraint with which they are delivered. The last line, ‘Dort, wo du nicht bist, dort ist das Glück’ (‘There where you are not, there is happiness’), ends with ‘Glück’ on a pianissimo note so low—Boesch chooses the lower option, here a D—that part of the pathos is in its quiet depth.
Friedrich von Schlegel’s comparatively positive poem, also called Der Wanderer, Schubert set to a complex accompaniment which suggests more thought in the solitary-traveller than do Schlegel’s words: this song is beautifully performed here, with a little more briskness than it used to be given by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore. Schubert’s lovely setting of Der Wanderer an den Mond, although Seidl’s poem contrasts the lonely walker with the contented moon, makes the song one of resignation and resolve; the steady pace of Vignoles’s accompaniment is exactly right.
It is no surprise, given the theme of this recital, to find here five settings of poems by Mayrhofer, the melancholic poet whose Romantic yearning for better times and places was second to none; close to Schubert for several years, he killed himself eight years after Schubert’s death. His two short poems, Heliopolis I and II, Schubert set with inventive fidelity to the contrasting words, the first warmed with the suggested promise of the sunflower, the second a stormy celebration of wild nature as creative inspiration: Boesch and Vignoles make much of the dramatic exhilaration of this song. Two other contrasting Mayrhofer settings evoke from Schubert different, equally subtle, responses to boats and water. The gentle opening of Auf der Donau, a lovely, rarely performed song, gives way to a trembled, fearful and finally despairing sense of time bringing everything to destruction, ‘Untergang’, the song’s last word, with the accompaniment fading in a repeated downward scale to darkness. In Der Schiffer, both poet and composer, and here both singer and accompanist, exult in the loss of control of a little boat in a storm: one of Schubert’s great expressions of defiance of fate, transience, unhappiness. Quite different again is Abschied, a simple little Mayrhofer poem of farewell which the 19-year-old Schubert sets to gentle changing chords, with the suggestion of an alpenhorn far away. In their performances of this song and of others on this disc, notably in the early setting of Goethe’s Meeres Stille and Wandrers Nachtlied D224, and the much more familiar Wandrers Nachtlied D768 ('Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh’), Boesch and Vignoles fade words and music into total stillness with extraordinary and poignant delicacy.
We are never far from the solitude of the forlorn wanderer, but there is much variety in these songs. The fast trotting rhythm—Schubert is rarely at his best with horses, though this is a remarkable song—of the equivocal Auf der Bruck, taken at a testing speed; the solemn Medieval nostalgia of the late (1827) Der Kreuzzug, ending writh a ‘promised land’ (‘das gelobte Land’) that Leitner’s somewhat sentimental poem makes both real and metaphorical; the unfamiliar and magical Das Heimweh, an early, haunting setting of a poem by Theodor Hell, more positive about the transcendent than any other song in this recital: all are given their full, never overdone, due by both singer and accompanist.
Schiller sometimes daunted Schubert, but two settings here, Der Pilgrim, its confident beginning leading only to despair, and the well-known and profoundly sad Die Götter Griechenlands, show him responding with appropriate sympathy and depth to considerable poems. ‘Schöne Welt, wo bist du?’ (‘Beautiful world, where are you?’) Die Götter Griechenlands begins; and the song ends with desolate repetitions of the question: this song needs just the thoughtful, undemonstrative grief with which Boesch sings it.
The penultimate song, Im Walde, is much admired but, perhaps because it is placed after the Schiller settings, here sounds a little disappointing; both the young Schlegel and Schubert produce an outpouring of Romantic aspiration, but neither is far enough from automatic pilot. The recital ends, however, with the rarely heard Lied D788—slow, calm and accepting of ‘easeful death’, the wanderer finally reconciled to his fate: this is a beautiful song that should be better known.
This fine disc, pervaded with sadness though it is, has a great deal to offer those who love Schubert’s songs. There is an excellent booklet note by Richard Wigmore, and his own very good translations.