Hyperion Records

Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente
Although now regarded as one of the greatest lyric poets in the German language, Friedrich Hölderlin (1770–1843) died insane and in obscurity. It was only in the twentieth century that his genius was recognized, above all in naturalizing the forms and spirit of Greek poetry into the German language. As already observed, Britten chose his texts with care. First comes Menschenbeifall (‘Applause of men’), an appropriate choice for a work dedicated to the composer’s friend and patron. As in the first of the Britten’s Michelangelo Sonnets, the piano strides proudly across the keyboard, before parodying the empty chatter of the crowd in bright staccato chords that seem to embody the sound of the German word ‘Quatsch’ (meaning both ‘chatter’ and ‘rubbish’). Only at the end does a gradual diminuendo suggest Britten’s scepticism about his own nearness to the gods. The second song, Die Heimat, is the most overtly Romantic and lyrical of the six. Falling sixths in the voice part evoke the singer’s happiness at returning home, carried on a stream of smoothly flowing triplets and supported by an echoing voice in the piano part. The warm sunset glow of this song perhaps reflects the peaceful home to which Pears and Britten were often welcomed by their German friends.

By contrast, Sokrates und Alcibiades is illumined by the bright, clear sunlight of Classical Greece. In a deftly simple gesture, Britten accompanies Alcibiades’ question with a single line of melody, as if played on an antique flute, which then reveals itself as the vocal melody to which Socrates frames his reply. (Those familiar with Death in Venice will recognize a similar lucidity in the passage where Aschenbach, in love with the boy Tadzio, questions an imaginary Socrates on the subject of passion and beauty.) In composing the fourth song, Britten must have been aware of parallels with Goethe’s poem Ganymed, of which he and Pears were sublime interpreters in Schubert’s version. But instead of the languorous ecstasy and heavenly apotheosis of Ganymede, Die Jugend is all childish play, with its tapping drum and wildly careering quavers, until the last page when Nature’s burgeoning trills finally bring the singer to manhood, with a ringing top G.

In contrast to such youthful exuberance, Hälfte des Lebens addresses the melancholy of middle life, with its sense that what has ripened is already overblown and can only now look forward to a cold and wintry old age. Here again Britten seems to echo Schumann, in both the weighty triplets of the piano part and the droopingly chromatic vocal line, while in the final song, Die Linien des Lebens, he returns to the more intellectual mode of Hugo Wolf. In music that is almost better appreciated by the eye than by the ear, traces of a kind of scala enigmatica creep insect-like across the page, only gradually coalescing into the harmony suggested by Hölderlin’s peroration. Despite its triumphant ending, it must be admitted that Britten’s setting brings the cycle to a rather austere conclusion. Musically satisfying perhaps, but with just a hint of more head than heart involved in its composition, and it may be this apparent austerity that lies behind the cycle’s relative neglect by performers.

from notes by Roger Vignoles © 2005

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