The scholar-pianist Graham Johnson devised and accompanied remarkable series of the complete Schubert lieder (37 CDs) and the complete Schumann lieder on the Hyperion label with performances by renowned singers of art song. Johnson and Hyperion have undertaken a similar project with the songs of Johannes Brahms. It promises to be a grand achievement. This first volume in the series features mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager accompanied by Johnson in a recording dating from 2008. The CD consists of 25 Brahms lieder together with four folksong arrangements from Brahms's 1894 collection "Deutsche Volkslieder", WoO33. Kirschlanger is best-known for her roles in the operas of Mozart and Richard Strauss. I think she is in beautiful voice on this CD and offers lovely readings of Brahms for listeners that know his songs and for those unfamiliar with them. But I want to focus this review on the upcoming series and on the music itself.
Brahms is less well-known as a song composer than either Schubert or Schumann. His songs, however, are well-represented on CD, with a six CD box by Fischer-Dieskau, a complete set of songs on individual CDs on the CFO label, and a new, large-scale budget box set of 13 CDs on the budget-priced Brilliant label. Johnson's new project remains highly welcome and important and should help make Brahms' song output more familiar and loved by many listeners.
Besides the performances and the comprehensive character of the project, this set is unusual because of the depth and scholarship of Johnson's accompanying notes. They are almost book-length in detail. When the series is completed, the notes themselves will constitute an invaluable guide to the Brahms songs. Johnson provides text and translation for each song, together with date of composition, time signature, and key, but this is only the beginning. Detailed musical, literary and historical analysis is included. This information allows the listener to focus on and enjoy each song and to approach each work as an individual creation rather than to rush through them.
For example, this CD includes one of Brahms's greatest and best-known (after the "Lullabye") songs, "Von ewiger Liebe", or "Eternal Love", opus 43, no. 1, set to a text, which Brahms misattributed, by Hoffmann Von Fallersleben (1798-1874). This song tells of a lonely conversation between two lovers, of highly different social backgrounds. The young man proclaims his unworthiness while the woman pledges the endurance of love, regardless of the opinion of other people and of the young man's poverty and lack of education. Graham's notes describe the content of the poem and show how Brahms's music captures its movement. (Brahms is too often viewed as paying insufficient attention to his texts.) Graham describes how Brahms' understanding of the poem and of the plight of the lovers may differ from that of the woman who sings the song. It is an altogether insightful and helpful guide to approaching this wonderful lied.
Johnson's notes are similarly useful for the remaining songs and folksong arrangements on the CD, especially for his comments on works such as "Trost in Tranen" or "Consolation in tears", a rare setting, for Brahms, of Goethe, "Meine Liebe is grun", a passionate poem by Felix Schumann, the son of Robert and Clara, "Therese" a song of adolescent male -- older woman love setting a poem by Gottfried Keller, the famous meditative song "Feldinsamkeit" (Alone in the Fields) to a text by hermann Allmers and "Nactwandler" (Sleepwalker) by Max Kalbeck, which Johnson interprets to refer to Brahms's walks through Vienna late in the evenings in search of women of the streets. The notes to these and many other songs helped me to understand and appreciate them more.
While useful, it is important to avoid becoming distracted by the detail of the notes. I think the best way of approaching this music is to listen to the songs while focusing, at most, on the recording and on the printed text and translation. The songs and the music speak for themselves. After doing this, and trying to avoid the temptation to read ahead, I returned to the booklet to read Johnson's notes. I then went back to the songs and texts to hear them again with the musical and literary insights I had gleaned from Johnson. For songs that the listener wants to approach more closely, a more individualized and detailed reading and hearing will be possible.
The series as a whole will be arranged with in modified chronological order. Each CD presents works from different periods of Brahms's life, but the songs are chronological within the periods. Most of the time, the songs cannot be presented whole by their sets in opus numbers because Brahms chronologically interpolated works from different times in his published sets. This CD, however does include a full set of the seven songs of opus 48, presented in the order in which Brahms offered them in the published volume. Each volume will include a selection of lieder together with a selection from the folskong arrangements. The four folksongs included on this CD feature Brahms's lovely and, for many listeners, familiar setting of a sad love song, "Da unten im Tale" , "Down there in the Valley" together with two lighter, even slightly naughty songs.
This CD, and Johnson's notes stress Brahms's interest in folk song throughout his lieder, the melancholy, introspective, and highly personal character of some of the songs, and Brahms indebtedness to his predecessors, especially Schubert, in the realm of art song.
I have heard and come to love several recordings of Brahms's songs in recent years and was excited to learn of Johnson's new series. CD's on Hyperion are, alas, fully-priced. Budgetary considerations aside, I look forward to further releases in this new series of the Brahms songs.
It is to be hoped that Graham Johnson's virtually unique contribution to the study, recording and presentation of lieder on disc will one day be rewarded with, if not a knighthood, then something commensurate with his astonishing achievement on his several series of Schubert, Schumann, Chabrier recordings and others, and now Brahms. He has been, slowly but surely, performing a great service to those interested in the songs of such composers, and one hopes he has led the more hesitant listener (as I myself once was) to the glories of the lieder repertoire.
My fellow reviewer Robin Friedman has talked eloquently of the songs herein as well as the contents of the booklet, and I gladly direct you to his comments.
Salzburg-born Angelika Kirchschlager has a rich and silvery voice, delicate when necessary, steely and firm when required, pleasingly breathy or nicely sultry at times, precise yet not over-articulated - a vocal trait that puts me off certain German and English singers of lieder & song. She possesses a welcome human quality in her singing, never seeming to overstate her case, and characterising each song just enough, with a disarming husky vocal grain at times that draws one in and beguiles the ear. Hear how she varies the tone-colour in a single word, letting the very language of these poems breathe, like waves breaking and receding on the shore. How good to hear a singer with such a natural approach, and the mellowness of a true mezzo.
I find the same almost hermetic quality in some of the more pensive of these songs as I hear in many of Brahms's pieces for solo piano. It is something not always mentioned when talking of Brahms, and it is an endearing one.
Here are 71 minutes of two artists singing and playing as one - Graham Johnson must be the accompanist from heaven, much more than simply an accompanist, of course; he is the other voice.
A wonderful disc, which will give endless pleasure the more one listens and gets to know these subtly beautiful songs.