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On 8 October 1876,the Vienna Men’s Choral Society had performed Schubert’s Gott in der Natur with resounding success. When I told this to Anna the next day she broke in excitedly “He wrote that for me”. Surprised and sceptical I replied “But it is for chorus and orchestra” whereupon she said, “But originally it was written for quartet. It happened like this. It was shortly after Schubert had been introduced to us and was coming to the musical evenings which I used to give at that time at our house; we had just sung the trios and other things from Die Zauberflöte and he said over and over again: Bless my soul! (I can see him still, folding his hands together as if in prayer, because he was so moved, and pressing them against his mouth, as he used to do when he heard something beautiful – Heavens! How beautiful that is. … and then suddenly ‘But I know just what I shall do’ – And then in a few days he brought me the quartet ‘Gott ist mein Hirt’ [Psalm XXIII] and soon after that the quartet Gott in der Natur … But apart from these he only wrote the Ständchen for me and, later on, Mirjams Siegesgesang …”. Kathi added … “Yes indeed, our poor Schubert, his was a wonderful nature. Never was he envious and jealous, as so many others are. On the contrary, if something beautiful in the way of music was performed, he would put his hands together, against his mouth, and sit there quite enraptured. The innocence and simplicity of his nature were quite indescribable. Very often he would sit with us on the sofa, joyfully rubbing his hands, and say ‘To-day I think I have done something which is really good’. Ah well, our poor Schubert! Only a fortnight before his illness, or rather before his death, he was at our house.”
The Fröhlich memories, even if filtered through other sources, and embroidered with hindsight, have the ring of truth. Two of the four women, Anna and Josephine, lived until 1878, and the other two, Babette and Katherina until 1879, so they survived to see their former friend become a world-famous figure. Breuning’s long account of their conversation bristles with their bossy energy and enthusiasm; it exactly captures the tone of the Viennese senior citizen who has done, seen, and known it all, and is prepared to talk about it as a special favour. It is clear that Schubert also found the Fröhlichs irresistible, not only because three of them were wonderful musicians, but because they were the type of life-enhancing women from whom no one can refuse a request. Usually Schubert was notoriously uncooperative in providing music to order, but Anna was clearly a special case. In writing the Ständchen8 for mezzo soprano and male (instead of female) chorus, he meekly corrected his mistake, and immediately provided another version of D920.
Four-part writing for four female voices (two sopranos and two altos) is not the easiest musical combination. It is hardly surprising that the piece was re-scored for men’s chorus with orchestra (typical of the sort of arrangement sanctioned by Ferdinand Schubert after his brother’s death) and that is how Breuning first heard it in Vienna. Apart from that Ständchen chorus, Schubert wrote only two works for four-part female chorus. The other piece (as Anna tells us) is the Psalm XXIII31. On the whole that is more successful than Gott in der Natur because it is gentle and exploits the euphonious combination of voices without drawing attention to the main drawback of the format: a lack both of a strong bass line, and the type of punchy force and energy that is possible in a mixed quartet, or a quartet of men’s voices. Nevertheless, the composer seems to have been inspired by the part-writing in Die Zauberflöte where there is a lot of ingenious part-writing for ensembles of higher voices in the music for the three ladies and three boys.
There are a few Magic Flute-like passages in Gott in der Natur; even the text might have been intoned by a Sarastro. The text by Christian Ewald von Kleist (not by Gleim; this mistake goes back to Schubert’s autograph, and was perpetuated by the old Gesamtausgabe) is old-fashioned enough to summon up a feast of pomposo Baroque pastiche. The key is in ceremonial C major, and the ‘Maestoso’ opening movement is made up of scales, ominous trills appropriate for divine thunder, and double-dotted figurations. Schubert seems to have changed the poet’s words to include a ‘Sturm’ not in the original: this gives him an opportunity to provide exciting figurations of bristling hemidemisemiquavers in the piano, the left hand a rolling tremolo. The image of lightning (‘und Blitze’) sets off antiphonal exchanges between the voices while the accompaniment’s dotted rhythm seems electrically charged.
The poem’s second strophe inspires music of a quieter and more gentle kind, the lead soprano cast as a soloist floating a descant over a lyrical and hushed description of the dawn where the other three vocal parts are supported by the piano’s chords gently throbbing off the beat. The image of ‘Glanz’, like starlight in Nachthelle26, prompts accompanying semiquavers pulsating on banks of held chords, a radiance that is as awe-struck as awe-inspiring. Then there is a return to the milder music as God looks benignly down on earth (‘Er sieht mit gnäd’gen Blick zur Erd’ herab’). The choral version of these words is echoed in an almost operatic solo by the first soprano; the tessitura plunges down the stave as the all-seeing Almighty gazes down from a higher vantage point. Dotted rhythms and a fortissimo dynamic return at ‘Er schilt, es fähret Feuer vom Felsen’, a reaction to the phrase ‘Meer und Himmel bebt’ – a shaking also depicted in left-hand tremolandi octaves. This device is found more in Schubert’s later music than his earlier work, and an early indication of the Romantic style.
The piece’s second movement is an ‘Allegro giusto’ in 3/4 in the grand manner of a closing movement of a religious cantata where praise to God in the highest draws the threads of all that has preceded it into a mighty peroration. The key remains C major, now less clouded by illustrative chromatic harmonies. Although there are thirteen more verses in Kleist’s poem (entitled Hymne), Schubert prefers to repeat the words of the same verse in order to achieve a majestic conclusion. The sopranos are first pitted antiphonally against the altos, the voices underpinned by a typically Baroque bass – quavers in striding octaves. The addition of right-hand music to this signals all four voices uniting in block harmony, but only for a short while; Schubert enjoys himself too much with lobbing the vocal line between the parts for that unanimity to last long. Here, as throughout this piece, his mastery of counterpoint shows for the umpteenth time that his fears of inadequacy in that direction are unfounded.
At the fourth repetition of the words, in a really orchestral touch, the accompaniment breaks out into a ceaseless slew of sewing-machine semiquavers in the best Baroque manner. This energises the texture in the absence of louder vocal sound – something which is made impossible by the absence of men’s voices. This semiquaver moto perpetuo continues almost to the end, at first accompanied by striding left-hand quavers, and then by broad chords which thicken the bass line. The final bars insist on the triad of the home key in a bold manner worthy of a large symphonic work by Beethoven. Anna Fröhlich’s young lead singer is given a challenging high C, and double octaves ascend the piano to bring the piece to a close in a suitably stirring way. The whole thing is a shining example of Schubert’s being able to write to order, and of his ability to assimilate the manner and style of the older composers who went before him. Before it was fashionable to write for children, or for schools, he gives no quarter to the young ladies of the Konservatorium; he writes for them as seasoned professionals. Only the insistence on a suitably religious text, and the absence of love poetry, shows that the prospective performers are still of an age to need chaperones.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2000
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