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Abendbilder, D650

First line:
Still beginnt’s im Hain zu tauen
February 1819; first published in 1831 as part of volume 9 of the Nachlass
author of text

For the Schubertian, the first impression is of a re-working of Der Lindenbaum from Winterreise: those undulating sixths in the piano are uncannily descriptive of the gentle movement of an evening breeze wafting through the branches of the trees. But of course Abendbilder pre-dates Winterreise by some seven years, and the sliding sixths (to be found on a number of occasions elsewhere in Schubert’s songs, notably in the final section of Nachthymne on this disc) go back to one of the greatest of all eighteenth-century Lieder, Mozart’s Abendempfindung which, significantly, is also concerned with heartfelt and haunting intimations of mortality at eventide.

A less obvious link is with Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte (1816) and Schubert’s own Einsamkeit D620, which he had composed in 1818 at Zseliz and which can be heard later on this disc. At this time the composer seems to have been interested in finding a means of writing groups of songs which added up to more than the sum of their parts. It would be some years before he discovered the separate-song narrative format for his two Müller cycles, Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise; from 1818 he experimented with mini-cycles in the Beethoven manner, that is songs joined together without a break in the manner of An die ferne Geliebte. Another richly episodic song which verges on being a cycle in terms of its length is An den Mond in einer Herbstnacht; this also dates from 1818. Until the song-rondo Viola written in 1823, Einsamkeit was by far the most ambitious of these formal experiments, but Abendbilder, in a more compact way, is also a work in various separate scenes which are linked together by the ongoing flow of an accompaniment built upon a single unifying motif. The poem is helpfully episodic for such an experiment: an introductory strophe about the coming nightfall is followed by the flight of ravens, the sound of the vesper-bell, the sparkling of stars. And then the climactic payoff – some would say the let-down – of tombstones and lofty thoughts of the Great Resurrection.

There is no doubt that Silbert’s heart was in this poem, but there is no reason to suppose that Schubert was attracted to the words because of their religious message. Indeed it is at the end of the song, as the poet’s thoughts turn to the triumph of promised immortality, that the music is at its least convincing. Although the composer was interested in lofty metaphysical themes at the time (his settings of Novalis are evidence enough of this) there is no doubt that Schubert’s own philosophical (and thus musical) quests lay outside conventional Roman Catholic doctrine and the Redemptorist enthusiasms of Silbert. There is a further factor in that the composer had become friendly with the Esterhazy family who had a summer residence in Zseliz where the composer had spent the summer as a music tutor in 1818. It is possible that the religious poems of Silbert, like the Marian poems of Schreiber, appealed to the religious countesses Esterhazy, mother and daughters. It is not impossible that the composer had been asked by his new patrons to set certain poems or simply did so to please them.

The original key is A minor, and the insertion of passing accidentals (D sharp and G sharp) in these sidling sixths reinforces memories of Mozart’s Abendempfindung where the middle of the keyboard is traversed on the white notes except when pivoted around the occasional B flat. From the very beginning, the idea of echo (which is established by the poem only in the second strophe) is marked by relatively short vocal phrases followed by piano interludes; in many of these the left hand crosses to the treble reaches of the keyboard. The drooping little third which is a feature of this crossover (directly after the verb ‘tauen’) is a dotted minim falling to a quaver, and is as delicate as dew first gathering and forming on a leaf, and then dripping groundward. The writing for the voice is rather florid, with a number of awkward triplets (at the second ‘trunk’nen Blicke schauen’ in the first verse for example – rather appropriate considering the literal meaning of the words). We find this type of Italian-influenced vocal writing quite often in the songs of this period when opera was much on the composer’s mind, and the scale of a piece was ostensibly grander and more impressive with the use of rhetorical operatic devices such as melisma.

The second strophe begins with the ominous ideas of ravens and ends with a nightingale. After ‘Sieh! der Raben Nachtgefieder’ Schubert cannot resist a tiny musical comment by way of a shudder of apprehension – a figure, already heard in the treble after ‘Grauen’, which plunges a fifth in the bass. (We hear a similar bass-clef frisson, a momentary shadow unnoticed by the casual listener, ushering in the minore section of Der Lindenbaum eight years later.) There is also a brooding bass-clef pianistic commentary after ‘Rauscht auf ferne Eichen nieder’. The word ‘Balsam’ comes again in the Novalis Nachthymne on this disc, and both times it is connected to sensual triplets; here it is part of the compound noun ‘Balsamduft’ which is rendered into an airy phrase arching upwards and then falling in a graceful curve. Philomel’s song occasions more hand-crossings, and Schubert thoroughly enjoys the chance to use the upper reaches of the keyboard (after the first ‘die Echo wieder’) to approximate the high tessitura of birdsong. Word repetitions (‘Hallet, hallet zart die Echo wieder’) give rise to long phrases of melismas and mini-flourishes in duplets and triplets which imitate the showy song of the nightingale, a bird who makes a number of star appearances in the Lieder, notably in Ganymed. During this strophe the music moves from A minor into F sharp major.

The tolling of bells is one of this composer’s specialities (cf. Das Zügenglöcklein). An inverted pedal on F sharp (the triplets are now transferred to the bass line) paints the vesper-bells, not, as one might expect, as harbingers of peace and joy, but with a hint of angst (the music has now moved into B minor). Here the worshippers are frightened souls, driven by the rather menacing urgings of the bells to renounce earthly dross in favour of future heavenly rewards. The poet may have been certain of these, but this section of the song, with its lack of a solidly grounded bass, shows Schubert to have been more of a Doubting Thomas. The composer’s opinion of organized religion was not high; he observes these village believers from afar as they scurry to church, without being of their number. One is reminded of the mixture of pity and contempt the singer feels for the cosy little town-dwellers of Im Dorfe in Winterreise. The ascending phrase on ‘Dass ihr Herz Himmelwärts, Sinnend’ and the descent on ‘ob der Heimat Schöne’ is a perfect little musical metaphor for mankind’s brief descent up the ladder of life until he descends into the grave: hatch, match and dispatch. The music is restless and, if not exactly doom-laden, has an air of unease.

For the third strophe the change from F sharp major into D major is to move from the oppressive atmosphere of an incense-laden church into the clear air of a beautiful starry evening. There seems little doubt that here, in communion with Nature, lies the composer’s strongest emotional connection with contemplation of the Infinite. The triplets have now returned to the right hand of the accompaniment and, in tune with the celestial theme of the words, these are in a higher and brighter tessitura than anything that has gone before. At ‘Lunas Bild Streuet mild’ there is a beautiful shift to the open fields of C major but, as soon as the hills and meadows are tinged with gold, the music moves into a brighter E major. An extended Zwischenspiel leads into the next verse, and as the music returns to A minor the effect is that of a grand recapitulation, as if the song had something of a sonata movement about it. When writing songs which may be called (very broadly speaking) modified strophic Lieder, Schubert often returns to the music of the opening in order to achieve a sense of having come full circle. This returning home after a journey gives the music a sense of grandeur and inevitability, and in it we can hear the experienced composer of instrumental music.

In this manner, ‘Von des Vollmonds Wiederscheine’ returns to the music of the song’s opening, and once again the left-hand echo effect as it crosses into the upper reaches of the keyboard is perfectly suitable for the idea of reflection which, after all, is only a visual echo. At the words ‘Aber ach!’ the music is steered in another direction, as if all this sensual pleasure at the sights of nature has to come to an end in favour of thoughts of our mortality. The music of the left hand has up until now consisted of gently supportive and rather discreet crotchets, but there is a new note of majesty sounded in the bass for ‘Der Entschlummerten Gebeine’, and we shall hear the same portentous organ pedal notes at the forte repeat of ‘Bis beim grossen Auferstehen’ in the last verse. The triplets gently rise and cradle the beautiful, and entirely characteristic, change from A minor to A major at ‘Ruht, o Traute! von den Wehen’. There is a genuinely Schubertian note of tenderness here (as always with this particular key change) but this is soon swamped by a forced grandeur that seems to have been rather mechanically summoned to depict the words, without Schubert having been truly inspired by them. ‘Auferstehen’ (Resurrection) is ornamented with a turn, an old-fashioned device, as if there were some connection in the composer’s mind with this word and an eighteenth-century literary work like Klopstock’s Messias. It is as if Resurrection is a rather old-fashioned idea, or one that was associated with priestly rhetoric. It also has to be admitted that the intimacies of the song form cannot do real justice to the concept of Resurrection. Mahler composed a very large symphony in order to do so, but if the more ordinary aspects of evening life earlier in the song have suited Schubert’s genius for evocation and delight, this ending has a slightly wooden quality to it. Not only is it very difficult to perform (on the last page there are two gigantically long phrases with scarcely room for the singer to draw breath) but the pomposo visionary aspect of the music is ill suited to the rest of the song which is in the more intimate vein of Schubert’s pantheistic Nature music (cf. the Schlegel settings from 1819). The quasi-orchestral postlude (with implied brass and timpani) valiantly attempts to set the seal on something large and universal, but it is difficult to bring off convincingly.

Abendbilder is seldom heard on the recital platform. It is a flawed masterpiece full of wonderful illustrative ideas, intimations of future greatness (the Lindenbaum prophecy for example) and real moments of genuine Schubertian magic. The incessant triplets give it a sense of unity and inevitability, but when the text moves from personal (if not highly original) observations of Nature to grandiose (and even less original) declarations of faith, not even Schubert’s genius can bridge the gap and create a convincing whole.from notes by Graham Johnson © 1997


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