This is a beautiful, if not over-characteristic, piece of occasional music. At least we know that the composer was not responsible for the choice of text with its slightly mawkish religious overtones. The key is A flat which Schubert also chose for his much greater four-part song Gebet (1824). In Schubert’s output the worship of God (Im Abendrot) and Zeus (Ganymed) are linked by this tonality. This disc thus begins and ends in A flat major, and there may be some argument to say that Schubert regarded the sexual rituals of Versunken and Geheimes (both songs in this same key) as another sort of worship.
The piece starts with a gentle and mellifluous solo for the bass, the piano accompaniment suggestive of string accompaniment with pizzicato lower strings. After fifteen bars we hear all four voices (SATB) together for the first time, and the accompaniment breaks into semiquavers. The part-writing for the voices is particularly effective, a gentle sound of wafting harmony exactly right for a song about recovering from illness. For the great moment of God revealing himself (‘Durch die Nebel strahlt der Glanz’) the music shifts into C flat major, an almost obligatory progression in those A flat songs by Schubert where there is a moment of sensual magic or epiphany (in Ganymed the youth lies languishing on the breast of Zeus in C flat major). At ‘Liebevoll nahmst du der Leiden’ there is a short tenor solo before the four-part texture re-establishes itself. A recapitulation of the main tune is marked ‘Mit halber Stimme’ and, in the mezza voce form, strikes the ear as the most restorative of balms. The final setting of ‘Schicksalslenker … blicke nieder … Auf dein dankerfülltes Herz’ dies away in solemn augmentation. For a one-off commission Schubert should be congratulated for taking the trouble to write a beautifully turned miniature cantata, somewhat conservative in style (no doubt to fit the musical tastes of his employers) but nevertheless containing many a turn of phrase which could only have come from his hand. The only tragedy and irony is that as the composer sat down to write a piece about the happy cure of Herr Ritter, his own appalling health problem, the syphilis which was to change his life for ever, was about to emerge; indeed it was certainly only a matter of weeks before he would notice the first symptoms. Only then would the anonymous lines about a ‘bitter cup of sorrows’ have struck him as the most terrible of prophecies. If Elizabeth McKay’s theory that the illness was already well advanced by December 1822 is correct, the irony is stronger still.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1997
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