John Mark Ainsley (tenor), Jamie MacDougall (tenor), Simon Keenlyside (baritone), Michael George (bass), Graham Johnson (piano)
The key is C major, with a flowing (‘Etwas bewegt’) tempo in 6/8. The first verse, though undoubtedly heartfelt, borders on the sentimentality of the male-voice glee, the close harmony, with its leaning little chromatic inflections, suggestive of, if not the blues, at least something along the lines of ‘Way down upon the Danube river’. This anachronistic response on the part of this listener is not Schubert’s fault of course; there is a strain of sentiment in some of his works which was fresh and unspoiled in his own time, but the musical expression of it became a hackneyed commonplace of a later epoch. Very occasionally, when he is in drawing-room mood, and when he wishes to write for popular taste, we could mistake Schubert for a composer from the Victorian age. The beginning of this song is a rare example of this.
On the other hand, the second verse contains music that is as ravishingly beautiful as any he wrote. A gentle drone of an open fifth in the bass, music to lull us to sleep, is the foundation for an exquisite solo from the solo tenor; this filigree vocal embroidery, descriptive of lapping water and wafting breezes, is built on the chord of G7, and time is made to stand still with the deliciously suspended harmony. At ‘Der Wiese Gras umgaukelt lind’ we return to C major and the pastoral idyll achieves giddy new heights with the tenor’s response to the ethereal concept of a ‘Sylphenkuss’, the repeat of the word surrounded with a golden glow by a rapturous shift to the first inversion of D flat major. This leads to a cadence in A flat major at the end of the strophe. The challenging tessitura which other composers have often employed merely to impress or astonish is here completely responsive to the expressive demands of the poetry.
The music for the third verse – the heart of the poem – is perhaps the most remarkable. It begins in A flat major (an undulating barcarolle-like phrase which depicts the pulse of creation, no less) and then moves to C flat major. As we have seen earlier on this disc this is one of the composer’s favourite modulations when he is in the key of A flat and erotic love is on the agenda. From here there is a shift to D major via B minor (which is the enharmonic minor of C flat). As if to illustrate that the spirit of love is everywhere, we have the impression that it has seeped into every nook and cranny of the keyboard, and that it has the power to move effortlessly through each and every key. The setting of ‘Im Strom, wo Wog’ in Woge fliesst, Im Hain, wo Blatt an Blatt sich schliesst’ (pivoted around A major) is a simply enchanting reverie, a succession of vocal caresses. If we have been bewitched by the composer’s setting of these words first time around, we are not prepared for the masterstroke which accompanies the repeat of these two lines: the gently rocking ‘Im Strom, wo Wog’ in Woge fliesst’ is in F sharp minor, but the setting of the ‘Im Hain’ phrase is a falling sequence in the major, a tone lower, which stops the heart. It is as if we have penetrated to the very depths of the grove where we might hope to learn the secrets of Mother Nature herself. With the delicate semiquaver triplets on ‘wo Blatt an Blatt’ we can see the growth of fresh greenery: Schubert’s botanist microscope enables us to watch it unfurling shyly and tentatively as it aspires to the sunlight.
After music which achieves a magical mood of this kind, the danger is anticlimax, and so it proves here. The poem moves from tender natural imagery, where Schubert is an unrivalled master, and moves to rather ordinary romantic hyperbole. (A return to the ‘open’ key of C major seems ideal for this, although for a moment we believe that we are in A minor.) The resulting music is a merry and effective song in 3/4, without being exceptional – it is certainly no match for what has gone before. The same formula is followed which has governed the perorations of the other vocal quartets on this disc: a solo for the lead tenor, the repeat of that tune for the second tenor while the first provides a descant; and then it is the turn of the basses who have a brief solo passage before the forces gather for the final page. There is no more coloratura for Tenor I, but there is the almost statutory final high note on ‘Himmelsglanz’ with a soulful swell, and a decisive cadence. Manly honour has been satisfied with this hearty finale (and the singers must certainly have enjoyed it as a relaxation from the exacting demands of the earlier verses). But for moments of true Schubertian magic, one has to listen to the second and third verses.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1997