No 1: Menschenbeifall
No 2: Die Heimat
No 3: Sokrates und Alcibiades
No 4: Die Jugend
No 5: Hälfte des Lebens
No 6: Die Linien des Lebens
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