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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Heimweh II, Op.63 No.8* [3:32]
O kühler Wald, Op.72 No.3* [2:20]
Geheimnis, Op.71 No.3* [1:59]
Wir wandelten, Op.96 No.2* [2:36]
Meerfahrt, Op.96 No.4* [2:25]
Ständchen, Op. 106 No.1* [1:29]
Ein Wanderer, Op.106 No.5* [2:56]
Regenlied, Wo023* [1:42]
Das Mädchen spricht, Op.107 No.3* [1:25]
Mädchenlied Op.107 No..5* [1:49]
Mondnacht, WoO21* [2:41]
Auf dem kirchhofe, Op.105 No.4* [2:52]
Feldeinsamkeit, Op.86 No.2 [3:54]
Vergebliches Ständchen, Op.84 No.4 [1:45]
An die Nachtigall, Op.46 No.4 [3:53]
Meine Liebe ist grün" Op.63 No.5 [1:25]
Herbstgefühl, Op.48 No.7 [4:22]
Sommerfäden, Op.72 No.2 [2:12]
Abendregen, Op.70 No.4 [5:04]
Verzagen, Op.72 No.4 [2:36]
Nachtwandler, Op.86 No.3 [4:50]
Komm bald, Op.97 No.5 [2:44]
Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht, Op.96 No.1 [3:14]
Von ewiger Liebe, Op.43 No.1** [4:47]
Dame Janet Baker (mezzo)*
Ernest Lush (piano)**/Paul Hamburger (piano)
rec. BBC Studios, London, *16 September 1960; 4 January 1968; **7 February 1961 ADD Mono/**Stereo
BBC LEGENDS BBCL 4200-2 [69:02]


With the exception of the final song, the entire contents of this disc are taken from two studio recitals given in the 1960s.

As anyone who has heard her marvellous recording of the Alto Rhapsody with Boult (EMI) will know, Dame Janet Baker’s voice was very well suited to Brahms and here she is in marvellous, communicative form. The very first song on the disc, Heimweh II makes a lovely, easeful start to the proceedings and just hearing Dame Janet’s initial phrases reassures the listener that all is likely to be well throughout the recital.

Brahms has a reputation in certain quarters for seriousness. In his well-balanced and interesting notes Tully Potter quotes the somewhat unfair – but witty – comment made of one well-known singer who, allegedly, “would sing you Brahms’s Four Serious Songs and follow them with four more serious songs by Brahms.” As I say, that’s rather an unfair comment and Dame Janet disproves it here with a well-chosen and well-balanced recital. Brahms may not have expressed lightheartedness in lieder in the way that, say, Schubert was able to do but he did have a lighter side and Dame Janet does not neglect that side here.

So, for example, in Ständchen both she and pianist Ernest Lush display a suitably light touch. Again, in Regenlied Brahms has written the raindrops into the piano part and Lush brings this out nicely. In a different vein, however, Dame Janet conveys very well in Mädchenlied the sadness of the woman who has no man in her life and, one imagines, is contemplating a life of spinsterhood.

Generally speaking the selection of songs in which Dame Janet is partnered by Paul Hamburger are deeper in expression. The very first of their selection, Feldeinsamkeit, features some beautifully poised piano singing and a very well sustained vocal line. Hamburger’s playing is perceptive too, though there’s an important caveat about the accompaniments, to which I’ll come in a moment. An die Nachtigall is as eloquent a song as any on the disc and it’s beautifully delivered here.

Herbstgefühl offers us another example of Dame Janet’s ability to sustain line and atmosphere; she gives a wonderfully poised reading of that song. Just as fine is her rapt quiet singing in Nachtwandler, where the notes seem to be borne along on just a thin thread of breath. Controlled singing of this quality, with the singer’s exceptional technique wholly at the service of the music, is the hallmark of a great artist. 

The final item on the disc, Von ewiger Liebe, is, of course, one of Brahms’s most celebrated songs. This item was recorded in experimental stereo and it offers the best sound on the CD, which reports a splendid performance of the song.

Mention of the sound quality on that last track brings me to to the caveat I mentioned earlier. The recorded sound, though adequate, is not great. Dame Janet is recorded quite closely. That will please her adnirers but, as the piano parts are important in these songs, it presents an imbalanced sound picture. On my equipment the piano sound accorded to the recordings with Paul Hamburger is more resonant than that for the Lush contributions and Hamburger’s playing is reported, unjustly, in a rather murky fashion. As for Ernest Lush I wrote in my listening notes for Meerfahrt that the piano sound is “fat” at the bass end, and this is not untypical. It’s a pity because both pianists play well, to the extent that the sound allows one to judge. The sound is acceptable overall and I’m sure the transfer engineers have done their best with the source material but I do regret the imperfections of balance. 

My other complaint is a perennial one about this series, I fear. The texts and translations are not in the booklet. At one time texts for BBC Legends discs could be downloaded from the web - itself far from satisfactory - but now it appears that even that limited facility has been withdrawn. As I've commented before in reviewing BBC Legends discs, this is unacceptable. The discs may not retail at full price - at least not in the UK - but they are not offered at bargain price either. But in any event, this series includes some very important archive releases, of which I'd say this is one, and it really is selling the project short if texts and translations aren't readily available to all listeners, which in my view means including them in the booklet. This is even more necessary with a CD such as this where not all the items are tried and trusted favourites.

However, despite these two reservations this is an important disc and one that will give great pleasure since it contains so much fine and deeply committed singing. It’s certainly a mandatory purchase for all admirers of Brahms’s lieder or of Dame Janet Baker. 

John Quinn



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