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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Complete Lieder, Volume 7

Romanzen und Lieder, Opus 84 (1877-81) [9.48]
Sechs Lieder, Opus 85 (1877-82) [12.27]
Sechs Lieder, Opus 86 (1877-79) [18.17]
Fünf Lieder, Opus 94 (1883-84) [12.23]
Juliane Banse (soprano)
Iris Vermillion (mezzo soprano)
Andreas Schmidt (baritone)
Helmut Deutsch (piano)
Rec March 1996(Opus 84-85), October 1997 (Opus 86), September 1999 (Opus 94); Kleiner Sendesaal, Radio Berlin Brandenburg
CPO 999 447-2 [53.04]

There are two alternative ways of recording songs: having mixed selections chosen by the artists, as in a recital, or in groupings for publication as made by the composer. In their complete survey of the Brahms songs, CPO have chosen the latter route, which is too rarely found. It certainly helps the collector to know what is going on, and it helps also as far as searching out reference material is concerned. Not that the latter is so important as far is this issue is concerned, since CPO have provided lengthy introductory essays on the music, and there are full texts and translations, nicely laid out, and using paper thick enough to be able to read just one side at a time.

If the packaging is above average, so too are the performances. For these artists clearly know and love the songs they perform. The recording engineers have also captured them and their accompanist, Helmut Deutsch, in an ambient and truthful perspective, with results that are most compelling.

These songs are more likely to be performed as selections than as quasi-cycles, but it still makes abundant sense to gather them as here for the purposes of recording. This is particularly so as concerned the five songs of Opus 84, and for various reasons. The first three are settings of poems by Hans Schmidt, composed in 1881, whereas the other two derive from folk songs, and are somewhat earlier. So why are they gathered together? The answer lies in the performing options. They can be sung by a single voice, to be sure; but Brahms also gave the option of a duet approach, since the texts have a conversational style. It is this latter option that is found here, which characterises the music to the full. The booklet, in its typically thoughtful way, makes it clear exactly who does what, although it must be admitted that the back cover details are mistaken in suggesting that there are six songs in the collection rather than five.

In the Schmidt settings the two women offer a subtle yet compelling contrast of timbre, whereas in the two folksongs Banse’s soprano and Schmidt’s bass are strongly contrasted, after the manner well known from Mahler’s celebrated Des knaben Wunderhorn.

In the Opus 85 and 86 collections it is the latter who feature again, but now with just the one voice to a song. And in the latter set only the brief opening song, Therese, to words by Gottfried Keller, is taken by the soprano. The remainder are allocated to Schmidt’s dark and characterful baritone voice, as is the case too in the five songs of Opus 94, which could have been composed with his splendid voice in mind.

Contemporary with the Fourth Symphony, Brahms’s Opus 98, the Opus 94 songs find Brahms at the height of his powers. The imagery is compelling, at once dark and powerful. Brahms’s friend Theodor Billroth described the ‘melancholy bitterness’ of Friedrich Halm’s poems (on which three of the songs are based), and he found their willingness to confront the major issue of life and death a compelling experience. The fusion of words and music is certainly profound in its effectiveness, and there are abundant subtleties in the way that the central theme is treated. The final song, Kein Haus, keine Heimat (No House, No Home) is both austere, dramatic and brief. It concerns the dark thoughts of a hero who commits suicide in order to save his former mistress, who is just a fickle young girl. In the brevity lies the expressive intensity, the very profundity, of this wonderful song by one of the great song composers. Andreas Schmidt is a master of this repertoire, affording due credit to a composer whose achievement in this field is too often overlooked.

Terry Barfoot

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