Monday, 3 July 2017

Lieder on a battlefield - Schubert Körner Schlegel Wigmore Hall

Liederabend on the battlefield! Not Schubert at the piano, but Theodor Körner, poet and freedom fighter.  On the night of 26th August 1813, Körner played the piano and sang for his comrades into the early hours. The next day, astride his horse, and dressed in black Lützower Freikorps uniform, he was shot, and died, aged only 21.  The Lützower volunteers fought a heroic resistance against the forces of Napoleon. Many of them were intellectuals, but as soldiers they lived rough, often camped in dense forests, living amid nature, sometimes aided by peasants. All the elements of the Romantic spirit ! Romanticism and the very idea of German identity was thus forged through steel.  Literally Schwertlied, (the song of the sword) the patriotic poem Körner wrote for that final Liederabend depicted above. "Hurra, du Eisenbraut! Hurra!"   Körner's mystique was that, even in battle, he was an artist, and had a death wish, another Romantic meme.  One can imagine the impression Körner made on Schubert, a geeky kid from a poor background.

Thus the background to this recital in the Wigmore Hall's Complete Schubert Songs series. Here Schubert's settings of Körner were presented with settings of Friedrich von Matthisson, Friedrich von Schlegel and his brother August.  The Körner songs chosen, however, were more light hearted than heroic.  Sängers Morgenlied I  D163 and II D165 follow the same text, the first setting somewhat tentative, the second more developed.  These were written within the same few months in 1815, when Schubert also wrote Liebesrausch I D164, and II D179, the first a fragment, the second with palpitating figures in the piano part, suggesting the fervent heart in the text.  Also from this period but more individual were Liebeständelei D 206 and Das gestörte Glück D309, two songs of coy flirtation.  When Markus Schäfer, the singer at this Wigmore Hall concert, recorded these songs with Ulrich Eisenlohr some years ago, his voice was light and agile. It's still charming, though he has to push the lines a little more.

Schubert's settings of Friedrich von Mathisson are more varied.  Entzükung D413 (1816) and Stimme der Liebe D418 (1816) are somewhat impersonal declarations of love, one lit by bright sunlight, the other by sunset. The rhyming couplets in Liebenslied D508 (1816) don't inspire Schubert to great  heights. Interestingly, Mahler, drawing his text from folklore, wrote a rather livelier Scheiden und meiden.  Skolie D507 (1816), however, is a drinking song. For a moment we were back to the youthful vigour of Körner and Burschenschaft societies. Vollendung D579a and Die Erde D579b were discovered in the 1960's. D number apart they bear no resemblance to the well-known Der Knabe in der Weige D579.

Friedrich Schlegel as a young man
Just as Schubert was inspired by  the ideaism of Theodor Körner, he was inspired by the idealism of Karl Wilhelm Friedrich von Schlegel (1772-1829), another, though older, contemporary.  Schlegel's cycle of poems, Abendröte"Alles scheuint dem Dichter redend, denn er hat den Sinn gefunden, und das Allein einzig Chor manches Lied aus einem Munde".  The Gods of classical antiquity fade and Nature itself takes precedence.  The poems are vignettes : mountains, rivers, bushes, stars, a small boy and a butterfly, described in naturalistic terms.  Schubert wrote the songs in random order, from 1819 to 1823, the most prominent,  Die Abendröte.D690, last of all, though it forms the first part of the group on Schubert's manuscript. Its undulating piano lines suggesting the downward movement of the sun and the awakening of sensuality. "Berge, himmelan geschwungen" in every sense.  

Whatever Schubert's intentions may have been, the group of 7 of the 11 settings when performed together in this order has a certain logic. In Die Berge D614 (1819), the vocal line rises upwards, "Sieht uns der Blick gehoben", the middle section of the last word suddenly rising to a peak.  The piano part is confident, almost swaggering and upbeat.  In the middle strophe the pace quickens, strong single chords for emphasis.  With Der Knabe D692 (1820), we're down to earth once more, the high tessitura suggesting youth and fragility.  Der Fluß D693 (1820), is one of Schubert's most famous songs, its sensuous curving line flowing like a river. The vocal part soars and dips : there are parallels between this song and Schubert's last great masterpiece Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (D965) (read more here).  Perhaps the protagonist is a young shepherd looking down from a mountain to the river below. creating a nice connection with the other songs in this group.  With Der Schmetterling D633 (1819) we return to brisk, sunlight physicality, the piano part suggesting flapping wings. Die Sterne D684 (1820) recaps the mood of nocturnal repose in  Der Fluß  while the text of Die Gebüsche D646 (1819) reiterates the mood of the first song, Abendröte.: "Durch alle Töne tönet im bunten Erdentraume.ein leiser Ton gezogen Für den, der heimlich lauschet". 

August von Schlegel
Augmenting the settings of Friedrich von Schlegel, four settings of poems by his brother August Wilhelm von Schlegel (1767-1845) less successful in a material sense, but also influential, and cosmopolitan.  Lob der Tränen D711 1818, Die gefangenen Sänger D712 (1821), Wiedersehn D855 (1825) and Abdendlied für die Entferne D856 (1825) plus one of Schlegel's translations of Shakespeare, Ständchen D889 (1826) "Horch, horch, die Lerch!"   Ace programme planning!  Markus Schäfer with pianist Piers Lane gave an earnest performance, but the choice of songs was so erudite that it was well worth enduring the horrendous traffic jams in central London before and after the show.  Hyde Park was mayhem, roads blocked for 50,000 fans and Justin Bieber.  Meanwhile, at the Wigmore Hall, our minds were focussed on philosophic ideals.

This review also appears in Opera Today 

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