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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Lieder: Complete Edition Vol. 8

7 Lieder op.95 [10:42], 4 Lieder op.96 [10:16], 6 Lieder op.97 [10:40], 5 Lieder für eine tiefere Stimme op.105 [13:23]
Juliane Banse (soprano, op.95/1,2,4,5,6; op.96/2; op.97/4,5,6, op.105/2,3), Andreas Schmidt (baritone, op.95/3,7; op.96/1,2,4; op.97/1,2,3; op.105/1,4,5), Helmut Deutsch (piano)
Recorded October/November 1997 and January/June 1998 in the Kleiner Sendesaal (Radio Berlin Brandenburg)
CPO 999 448-2 [45:13]

I haven’t really been following this series, now nearing its end, though I did review Volume 3, dedicated to Die schöne Magelone. I must say I have two objections regarding matters of basic policy. The first is that of transpositions.

In the case of a solo recital of Lieder, mélodies and the voice and piano repertoire in general, it is only right and natural that the singer should select the tonality of each song most suited to his or her voice; indeed, the accompanist should be able and willing to offer a wider range of keys than the two or three published ones. But, as a pianist who spends a certain amount of time doing just that myself, I have to say that I increasingly notice how the shift of key changes the character of the piano writing, and never more, I would say, than in the case of Brahms whose love of rich sonority often led him to write as low down the keyboard as could be done without actually lapsing into grumpiness. With the result that even a shift down of a mere semitone risks grumpiness, while a rise, however small, involves a loss of richness. Listen to the first of the op. 105 songs, sung in its original key by the baritone, with its warm, echt-Brahmsian accompaniment, and then immediately after no. 2, transposed up a major third for the soprano; beautifully sung as a matter of fact. We seem to be listening to a different composer. And this particular set of songs actually specifies a low voice in the title.

Now, heaven forbid that I should wish to deprive sopranos of this particular song, in a solo recital, but surely the point of doing a complete edition with more than one singer is that you can then do all the original keys, choosing the singer for the song rather than the song for the singer. By which I suppose I mean that two singers were not enough for the job.

My other objection concerns the sharing between the two singers. The criterion seems to have been a democratic one – each must have a part of each song-set; not all that many call, by their words, specifically for a man or a woman. However, while these sets are in no way cycles or intended to build up a narration, they do, as the booklet-note writer points out, each have a particular character of their own. They also tend to stick to a similar vocal range within each set. In other words, Brahms may have composed the songs independently over a certain period, but when he gathered them up into opus numbers he grouped them according to a certain logic. Once again, a complete edition – a composer-oriented rather than performer- oriented enterprise – should surely seek out the unity of each set rather than destroy it by mixing voice types. What is the point of suddenly having a soprano to sing op.96/2 (again, very beautifully) when the rest of the set is sung by the baritone (nothing in the words calls for a female singer)? Or of suddenly inserting a tiny song for baritone in op.95, otherwise all sung by the soprano – no.3, Beim Abschied, which at 0:58 is so brief that, by the time one has adjusted to the change of singer, it is over? And again, there is nothing in the words to demand a male singer.

Having got that out of the way, what about the performances?

Her contributions to op. 95, all rather dramatic songs, find Juliane Banse somewhat over-parted, squally rather than full-voiced in climaxes. In no.5, Vorschneller Schwur, an unhappy progression can be heard from the exquisitely gentle opening stanza to the powerful second one which simply calls for a singer with greater reserves. Later on there are several songs, such as Wir wandelten op. 96/2 which call for gentle soft singing throughout, and these are most beautifully managed. Once again, it’s looking as if two singers were not enough.

Andreas Schmidt, as we know, has ample reserves and he is splendid in the more dramatic pieces. In his soft singing he has a way of starting the note "off the voice", an almost crooned sliver of vibrato-less sound. The trouble is that his intonation in these moments does not blend with that of the piano, leaving me with an uneasy proto-Schoenbergian impression. Then when he opens up the sound and allows it to begin vibrating the intonation comes right (and, closely analyzed it may be that his intonation is actually "pure" compared with the piano’s compromising equal temperament, but since he is working with a piano and not a string quartet, surely he should attempt to blend with it?). As an example, take the phrase in Nachtigall op.97/1, beginning from Das ist von andern, himmelschönen; each of the notes at the beginning of the phrase begins very marginally off the note, then harmonizes with the piano as the voice swells and the vibrato begins.

For some reason none of these vocal strictures apply to op.105 in which both artists give of their best; if the record had all been on this level it would have been a very fine disc indeed (Deutsch’s contribution has all the sensitivity, expertise and stylistic awareness we would expect of him). As it is, it is a serviceable offering for Brahmsian completists who are collecting the series (but these particular songs are worth anybody’s attention and show a much greater range than Brahms is sometimes given credit for); if all the discs have such short timings, though, I fear those buying the whole cycle are being made to fork out for more CDs than were strictly necessary. Most of the previous volumes have been reviewed on this site and reveal average timings around 55 minutes. The recordings are good, the booklet notes detailed if somewhat dryly musicological. Texts and English translations are included.

Christopher Howell

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