Johannes BRAHMS (1833 - 1897)
The Songs of Johannes Brahms - 4
see end of review for track listing
Robert Holl (bass-baritone), Graham Johnson (piano)
rec. All Saints’ Durham Road, East Finchley, London, 27-29 September 2010
Sung texts with English translations enclosed.
HYPERION CDJ33124 [76:06]
Of the more than two hundred songs that Brahms composed there are relatively few that are really well known. Wiegenlied is the one everyone knows and it is atypical of his production at large. His songs are always well crafted and due to his strong self-criticism he never published anything that he felt unsatisfactory. That said, few of the songs are of the immediate, easy accessible character evinced by those of Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn. By contrast, few people, I imagine, will be walking about humming Brahms’ songs. The sombre character of many of his songs can be a bit forbidding but deeper acquaintance with them pays dividends.
This disc, the fourth in a projected complete series, is rather typical. The second song is entitled Schwermut (Melancholy) and that could be the title of the whole disc. Graham Johnson - the mastermind behind this project - and Robert Holl have selected songs from the latter half of Brahms’ life. An die Nachtigall, the earliest of them, was written in 1868 when Brahms was 35. Today a 35-year-old is a young person but I suspect Brahms regarded himself as at least middle-aged. Focusing on low-lying settings to suit the bass voice there is further weightiness to the whole recital. Let me at once modify this by adding that Holl, here approaching his mid-sixties, is still a flexible and nuanced singer with the ability to lighten the tone when appropriate. In spite of a long operatic career with often heavy roles - he has been a regular at Bayreuth since 1996 - the voice is largely unscathed and the tone noble. Occasionally he squeezes the tone so there is a bulge in the middle which endangers the legato. It’s noticeable in O kühler Wald (tr. 9) for instance. That is very much the exception to the rule.
As in the previous volumes in the series this disc ‘takes a journey through Brahms’s career’, as Graham Johnson puts it in his extensive booklet notes. There he also argues that Brahms not necessarily intended the songs within an opus group to be performed as a unit. Picking and choosing the songs that suit the singer’s voice and mentality is no doubt very rational. That’s what we often encounter in song recitals. On the other hand an encyclopaedic project like this one would be easier to use for reference purposes; that’s just a private reflection. There are also two complete opus groups included: Fünf Lieder für eine tiefe Singstimme und Klavier, Op. 94 (tr. 12-16) and Vier ernste Gesänge, Op. 121. The latter is almost invariably performed as a unit and must be ranked as one of the finest groups of songs in the whole repertoire. My first recording of these songs was with Kathleen Ferrier (1950) and later I added another classic, Hans Hotter (1951). I also have a soft spot for Kim Borg (1959) and Erik Saedén (1976).
I should just mention in passing that Erik Saedén was born in 1924, made his debut at the Royal Opera in Stockholm in 1952 and at his retirement in 1981 had taken part in 2084 performances in more than 160 operas. He went on singing and his last performance, in a Stockholm church, was on 1 November 2009, two days before he passed away.
Sampling the old-time favourites listed above confirmed that they have all stood the test of time. They differ in details of interpretation, very little in tempos - that is, Saedén is almost a whole minute slower in the last song,Wenn ich mit Menschen- und mit Engelzungen redete and the same goes for Robert Holl. Replaying the song in its entirety several times I realized that this is no serious drawback. Brahms wanted the song Andante con moto et anima and even though Holl’s timing hardly suggests con moto I wasn’t aware of the difference when just listening. The intensity and weight of his reading fully justifies the tempo though at this stage in his career the strain is obvious. Both Hotter and Saedén are more willing to sing really softly and both enunciate the text with superb clarity, Saedén in particular (*). There is no lack of nuance in Holl’s reading and by and large this is a version of Vier ernste Gesänge that should satisfy even the most discriminating listener. It should be noted that Holl studied with Hotter in the early 1970s.
The Op. 94 songs are also a well integrated unit and could, in the words of Graham Johnson, be seen ‘as a kind of mini-cycle’. Brahms’ friend Billroth regarded it as ‘a kind of equivalent to Schubert’s Winterreise. Individually the fourth of the songs, Sapphische Ode, is often heard and recorded - I learnt this too through Kathleen Ferrier’s recording - but they are all very satisfying, not least the melodically enticing Steig auf, geliebter Schatten and the concluding Kein Haus, keine Heimat, Brahms’ shortest song.
The three Heimweh songs (tr. 4-6) are part of Op. 63 which comprises nine songs. The middle of the three, O wüsst ich doch den Weg zurück, is the best known, and it is sung with exquisite feeling for nuance. The other two are well worth hearing too. The beautiful Wie Melodien zieht es (tr. 18), written in 1886 for Hermine Spies, is sung in the original key, which reveals that she had a really deep contralto. Before the Vier ernste Lieder Holl temporarily disperses the melancholy with the light-hearted Auf dem See and the rather brusque folksong-like Maienkätzchen, with which Fischer-Dieskau used to end his Brahms recitals.
Hyperion’s ever-growing catalogue of song recordings is a veritable goldmine for Lieder lovers. Another valuable addition to the catalogue, featuring one of the most important Lieder singers of the last few decades. Graham Johnson’s capacity as accompanist has long been well known. He is the ever-flexible partner in what is a duo of equal merits.
A small but confusing error in the otherwise admirable booklet is worth mentioning. The track-numbers for the last six songs are wrong, since number 19 has been omitted. On the back of the booklet and the back-cover of the jewel-case everything is correct. So don’t let this little blemish deter anyone from enjoying the great merits of this recording.
Göran Forsling
Another valuable addition to the veritable lieder goldmine that is Hyperion’s ever-growing catalogue of song recordings. 

Track listing
1. An die Nachtigall, Op. 46 No. 4 [3:26]
2. Schwermut, Op. 58 No. 5 [2:41]
3. Dein blaues Auge, Op. 59 No. 8 [2:04]
4. Heimweh I: Wie traulich war das Fleckchen, Op 63 No. 7 [2:54]
5. Heimweh II: O wüsst ich doch den Weg zurück, Op. 63 No. 8 [3:45]
6. Heimweh III: Ich sah als Knabe Blumen blühn, Op. 63 No. 9 [3:15]
7. Alte Liebe, Op. 72 No. 1 [3:50]
8. Sommerfäden, Op. 72 No. 2 [2:41]
9. O kühler Wald, Op. 72 No. 3 [2:08]
10. Verzagen, Op. 72 No. 4 [3:12]
11. Todessehnen, Op. 86 No. 6 [5:09]
12. Mit vierzig Jahren, Op. 94 No. 1 [3:59]
13. Steig auf, geliebter Schatten, Op. 94 No. 2 [2:33]
14. Mein Herz ist schwer, Op. 94 No. 3 [2:30]
15. Sapphische Ode, Op. 94 No. 4 [2:30]
16. Kein Haus, keine Heimat, Op. 94 No. 5 [0:39]
17. Komm bald, Op. 97 No. 5 [2:39]
18. Wie Melodien, Op. 105 No. 1 [2:25]
19. Auf dem See, Op. 106 No. 2 [3:13]
20. Maienkätzchen, Op. 107 No. 4 [1:20]
Vier ernste Gesänge, Op. 121 [19:01]
21. Denn es gehet dem menschen [4:50]
22. Ich wandte mich, und sahe an alle [4:16]
23. O Tod, wie bitter bist du [3:52]
24. Wenn ich mit Menschen- und mit Engelzungen redete [6:01]