The first three settings belong to the first phase of Schubert’s engagement with the poetry of Salis-Seewis. He set the poet sixteen times between December 1815 and April 1816; most of the remaining seven settings date from the second phase (May/June 1817) when the composer returned to poems already set in the preceding year. The earliest setting of Das Grab (D329A, December 1815) is an unaccompanied fragment of twelve bars, a canon in four parts for mixed voices. On the other side of the same manuscript is another setting, dated 28 December 1815, for male voices. This quartet, D330, appears in Volume 22 of the Schubert Edition. A third setting for male voices and piano (D377) was written in February 1816. This C minor setting in imposing block harmonies, the first to be published (by Gotthard in 1872), appears in Volume 23. The fifth, and last, setting – D643A – discovered relatively recently in the Austrian monastery of Seitenstetten, dates from 1819. This is an unaccompanied four-part song for mixed voices in E flat major.
The male-voice quartet with piano recorded on this disc, Schubert’s fourth setting of the lyric, D569, dates from June 1817. For some reason Mandyczewski published the song as part of Series XX of the Gesamtausgabe (the solo song series) rather than in the choral series (XVI and XVII) where it belonged. This is no doubt why Fischer-Dieskau included it in his great survey of Schubert lieder in the 1970s. But Das Grab D569 is for unison chorus with piano, and achieves its full impact with these forces. The key is C sharp minor, the tempo ‘Sehr langsam’. The dark mood of the music, a majesty of utterance bordering on the lugubrious, puts one in mind of the great C sharp minor setting of the year before, Der Wanderer. The piece begins in the minor key, and slides into the major towards the conclusion of each strophe. This change of tonality and mood is something of a Schubertian thumbprint. We find a similar softening and sweetening in Der Wanderer of course, but also in many other songs: for example, in Der Tod und das Mädchen the change from D minor to D major offers resolution and reconciliation, but also suggests the vastness of the unknown vistas beyond life itself, the grandeur of nescience.
If a song as deep in every way as Das Grab is capable of having high points, these are the elongated cadences, cavernous in their musical effect, on the second to third full bars on the word ‘stille’, and once again at the end of the strophe on ‘ein unbekanntes Land’. The vocal part of the song remains in minims and crotchets, often in unison with the piano, a simplicity which enhances, rather than diminishes, the grandiose effect of the music. But it is the postlude which finds the composer at his most individual. Here decorative demisemiquavers follow on from double-dotted crotchets in such as way as to be prophetic of the great Mayrhofer setting Freiwilliges Versinken D700 (1820). That song, written in a manner which reinvents the grand Baroque style, as if the sun were making an entrance as Louis XIV, is worthy of the turning of the world; it depicts the setting sun in a postlude which shows Helios departing on his daily journey over the horizon, into the far distance (‘in weiter Ferne’). After these words, Schubert manages to suggest a vast, unexplored solar system in the musical space which he conjures where these dotted rhythms constitute a slow processional, a cosmic pavane. In Das Grab the equivalent phrase is ‘Ein unbekanntes Land’ at the end of the first strophe. The afterlife, if indeed there is one, is terra incognito, like the wide open space of the uncharted galaxies, and Schubert somehow musically describes it as such. Once again we marvel how this composer’s imagination responds to related ideas as if he were speaking a musical language of synonyms; his response to verbal imagery links songs from different periods without his seeming to be aware that he is quoting himself. In this ‘Schubert-speak’, music for the limitless depths of the grave was to be recycled to describe the fathomless descent of the sun in the heavenly firmament as well as its corollary, the ascent of the moon in the heavens.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2000
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