Verses 1-2: The whole work has a ceremonial air of a state occasion, a type of highly-costumed operatic approach which we find more in the Schiller settings for example, than in the more inward Goethe works. This is a magnificent recitative in a theatrically grand manner. It gains a thrilling edge sung by a woman, not least because our ears link the character of Orfeo with the mezzo-soprano voice. In the second verse, tuning his instrument while threatening the shadows, Orpheus turns the lyre's pegs, in gradations of rising semitones, from D flat major up to E.
Verses 3-6: This takes us to the dominant of the key of A for the central panel of the work, the set piece where Orpheus shows his mettle. Schubert wrote all the Harper's songs (from Goethe's Wilhelm Meister) in the same tonality and in the same month; the lyre-playing Orpheus is both historical antecedent and musical contemporary of the old minstrel who has also lost his love. The music is full of stagily beguiling coloratura. The beginning of Verse 5 (the dovetailing, mingled echoes between voice and piano 'Meine Klage tönt in eure Klage') marks the beginning of the differences between the first and second versions of the piece. As if by magical metamorphosis Orpheus turns into a tenor in the first version, and high As are demanded as readily as the low A flat of the introduction. One can understand that Schubert imagined that the mythical powers of Orpheus, most gifted of singers, would not be taxed by the range of more than two octaves. Fortunately, he soon realised that he, if not his leading man, lived in the real world, and brought the second version into the middle voice range we hear on this disc. The hushed piano interlude after Verse 6, where Orpheus's protestations cease in favour of lyrical, wordless sequences, is among the loveliest moments in the piece.
Verses 7-8: And the interlude produces its required effect. As soon Orpheus sees his first tears he knows he has won. And here we revert to the majestic feel of Gluck and the motor rhythm of magisterial quavers in classical mould, triumphant and exhilarating. The stage finale music of Verse 8 is prophetic of the music of the closing section of the Schiller Sehnsucht (D636, 1821, Volume 1). As always with Schubert, there are musical similarities to be traced when the poetic images are similar. The 'selige Gefilde' of this poem and Schiller's 'schöne Wunderland' are related territories of mythological imaginings. Here the physical distance between night and the Elysian fields in the vocal line is a minor ninth. Schubert shows something of the same delight in sudden changes between the Stygian depths of the chest register and the heaven of the head voice in that other ballad from the Underworld from a few months earlier, Klage der Ceres (D323, Volume 5).
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1991
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