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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Sonntag (Brahms); Sapphische Ode; Meine Liebe ist grün; Auf dem Kirchhofe; Feldeinsmkeit; Vier ernste Gesäng
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)

Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen; Schieden und meiden; Starke Einbildungskraft; Nicht Weidersehen; Zu Strassburg auf der Schanz
Robert KAHN (1865-1951)

Der Gärtner (Kahn); Jägerlied; Sie sprach: Nur aus dem Vaterland nicht Reisen!; Schueche doch mit deinem Pfiele; Obdach der Liebe; Liese Lieder; Novemberfeier (Kahn)
Ralph Kohn (baritone), Graham Johnson (piano)
Rec. 6th Ė8th September 1999, All Saints Church, Finchley, London, DDD
OPERA OMNIA 393 [66í38]

 

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 Johnson says:

"There 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 way.

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 exile :

"Und wenn du mich nicht wirst daraus verweisen,
So gehí ich nie aus meinem Vaterland.
Und ging ich unsdter fremden Himmelskreisen
Ich bleibe doch in meinem Vaterland."

(And if you do not banish me,
I shall never leave my Fatherland.
And were I to walk beneath foreign skies,
I should still remain in my Fatherland)

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.

Anne Ozorio



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