Behind this recording
is a real life, gripping detective story.
By chance, Graham Johnson, the eminent
pianist, discovered two volumes of songs,
bound together with a portrait of the
composer, "a gentle faced man with
a large moustache and dreamy expression".
Fascinated, Johnson set out to discover
more about the unknown composer, Robert
Kahn. The discovery was to shed light
on a tragedy, not just the tragedy of
Kahnís life, but the tragedy of millions,
and a whole section of European cultural
life. Robert Kahn was born five years
after Gustav Mahler and as a young man
knew Johannes Brahms, but his fate was
to live on, until his nineties. He witnessed
the horrors of the Nazism, exile and
war, which they were spared.
Yet Kahn started life
well starred. His family were well-to-do
Jewish residents of Mannheim, who encouraged
him as a musician and financed his studies
in Berlin, Munich and Vienna. He made
the acquaintance of Brahms in his early
youth, and idolised him, but when Brahms
offered to teach him, he declined. As
is a self doubting aspect to this
decision which tells us much about
Kahn as musician and man: aware
that his talents were more modest
than those of his prospective teacher,
he almost certainly realised that
his individuality, such as it was,
would have been threatened by being
drawn closer into the Brahms circleÖÖKahnís
intrinsic shyness seems to have
been a genuine, and rather touching
attribute: he declined the opportunity
to warm himself at Brahmsís hearth
out of a sense of knowing his place
somewhere below stairs."
Nonetheless, Kahn found
his niche. His Orchestral Serenade was
performed by no less than Hans von Bülow.
In 1894 he was invited to become professor
of composition at the Hochschule für
Musik in Berlin, beside Humperdinck
and Bruch. Among his students were Wilhelm
Kempff and Artur Rubinstein Ė and Nikos
Skalkottas. He was recognised as a Senator
in the Berlin Academy as for the Arts
in 1917. In retirement, however, he
was not to find peace. After the Nuremberg
Laws, he was forced into exile, an old
man, whose contribution to German musical
life counted for nothing in the new
Nazi state. Most of his music was lost
in the chaos that followed. All that
is known of his last years is that he
died in Biddenden in Kent in 1951.
Kahnís songs, too,
are unassuming, straightforward and
unpretentious, and pleasant music it
is, too. Deeply conservative by nature,
he remained firmly in the Brahms camp
musically. Gustav Mahler would have
struck him as aberrant, and Strauss
inhabited another plane. Perhaps even
the less modern of his contemporaries,
such as Pfitzner and Marx would not
have appealed. Composed between 1889
and 1899, they belong to that last twilight
when people still made their own music
and learned to understand it by participation,
before the recording and broadcast era
introduced the idea of passive consumption.
These songs arenít really material for
virtuosi and the concert platform: they
seem to call out for a more private,
personal approach. And here the recording
comes into its own. These songs have
never previously been recorded: we are
hearing them now for the first time.
By a deeply moving
coincidence, the baritone, Ralph Kohn,
himself arrived as a child refugee three
years after Kahn came to Britain. Who
better, then, to appreciate Kahnís tragedy
and do him honour? Kohnís voice may
have lost some of the sparkle of his
youth, but thatís no disadvantage here.
Indeed, Kohn brings a poignant sensitivity
that many younger singers would find
hard to emulate. This is one of those
situations where "life experience"
makes all the difference. The songs
are not technically taxing, and benefit
from that intangible sense that the
singer understands the emotion "from
within". Itís not a skill that
can be taught. Kohn will eventually
reach the age Kahn was when his world
collapsed: looking at Kohnís photograph,
you can see the gentleness in Kahnís
eyes reflected, but in a face which
has known more fulfilment and happiness.
I felt an instinctive connection to
this singing. It was as if I were hearing
my own father, who also was a refugee,
and whose life, too, was destroyed by
war, but who never lost his love for
humanity. Kohn has a genuine ability
to empathise and communicate, which
come into its own here in a remarkable
Interspersing the Kahn
songs with well chosen Brahms songs
is an excellent idea, for the Brahms
songs lift the Kahn and set them in
context. The selection is even more
subtle than meets the ear. Someone behind
this knows their poetry and music history.
The notes, linking Brahms, Schumann
and Kahn - and Felix Schumann, so tragically
lost Ė draw out the musical and poetic
connections. Johnson notes, too, the
eerie relevance of Kahnís Rückert
setting, written forty years before
du mich nicht wirst daraus verweisen,
So gehí ich nie aus meinem Vaterland.
Und ging ich unsdter fremden Himmelskreisen
Ich bleibe doch in meinem
(And if you
do not banish me,
I shall never leave my Fatherland.
And were I to walk beneath
I should still remain in
In its simple honesty,
this setting harks back to a time, long
before Nazism, when a Fatherland was
something noble and healthy to belong
to. The message is not hate.
The Mahler settings
fit well, too, for these were early
works. Mahler had not yet found Rückert,
but his Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
would develop, within a few years
into the basis of his First Symphony.
The Mahler songs in turn connect with
the Brahms masterpiece that ends the
recording, the profound Vier ernste
Gesäng. We turn full cycle
from a youthful Mahler on the brink
of adventurous new music, to Kahnís
youthful inspiration, Brahms, now in
the last great outpouring of his soul.
His beloved Clara Schumann had recently
died, and Brahms, no longer the handsome
young charmer he had been long ago,
knew that he, too, must take stock and
make peace. He returned to the Bible
of his childhood. Again, Kohnís singing
is touchingly appropriate. Brahms was
only in his mid sixties but very ill.
Often we hear this cycle sung by vigorous
young men with nary a care in the world.
Kohn is wise enough to know there is
more to the cycle than this. Cherish
the slight imperfections, as we cherish
our wrinkles as evidence of life well
lived, and listen for the whole effect.
Itís not every day that these songs
are heard in the context of three intertwined
lives, Brahms, Mahler and Kahn, and
with such life experience. Anyone whoíd
seek out an unknown composer like Kahn
would probably know the Brahms well
enough to listen "beyond the notes"
to the emotion behind. And, despite
confronting death, itís not despair
that triumphs. When all else is gone,
faith, hope and love remain Ė a profound
love of humanity that transcends the
grimness which life throws at us. This
recording is a very moving whole.
Production values are
exceptional. In addition to Johnsonís
inimitable and in this case, unique
notes, thereís an essay by Richard Stokes.
Very good value indeed.