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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
The Complete Songs - Volume 7
Benjamin Appl (baritone)
Graham Johnson (piano)
rec. 2015, All Saints Church, East Finchley, London
HYPERION CDJ33127 [77:42]

Features such as the whirring of Gretchen’s spinning-wheel or the pounding hooves that mark the nocturnal encounter with the Erl King – to evoke the two most celebrated examples – are typical of Schubert’s song writing technique but are rarely found in Brahms. Surprising, then, is the piano accompaniment to one of the best known of the songs included in this collection, Nachtigall, which is as unconcealed a representation of an extra-musical element, in this case the song of the nightingale, as you will ever find in Brahms. Graham Johnson, in a typically fascinating and wide-ranging booklet note, is quite right to draw attention to it. Many of us will first have encountered this song in the young Janet Baker’s famous Lieder collection on Saga, accompanied by Martin Isepp. Benjamin Appl takes a little more time over it than did the future Dame Janet, and the accompaniment is even more subtly realised.

Appl’s strengths as an interpreter are particularly evident in Vor dem Fenster. On the face of it, this is a fairly simple strophic song in triple time. But each verse is not quite identical and, in telling the story, he must play the role of the narrator, the young lover, and the girl who leaps from her bed when she hears him singing beneath her window. Appl achieves this with that synthesis of simplicity and sophistication that Brahms’s folk-inspired music requires, as he also does in the following Trennung.

One of the pleasures of dipping into this collection is finding new or unfamiliar things. Ich schell mein Horn ins Jammertal tells of a hunter who, unsuccessful in his pursuit of ‘a noble beast’, must go home to eat nothing more than hare and abandon the sport for ever. Deceptively simple, and with an accompaniment in simple chords that follow the vocal line, this is a most beautiful and moving song. One appreciates it even more when Graham Johnson’s commentary reveals that it almost certainly reflects Brahms’s tendency to desire unattainable women and to fall into despondency when success eluded him.

Other discoveries are less exciting. Das Lied vom Herrn von Falkenstein is another strophic song that calls for, and receives, much ingenuity on the part of the singer if monotony is to be avoided. That song, and the Italianate O liebliche Wangen are interesting discoveries, but not ones to become passionately attached to, I think. I wouldn’t have recognised either as written by Brahms. Another song that hardly seems typical of the composer is Blinde Kuh (‘Blind Cow’ or ‘Blind Man’s Buff’), which is Brahms in unaccustomed unbuttoned and ebullient mood. This song, however, following the darkly erotic In meiner Nächte Sehnen, underlines the care with which the programme has been put together. There is enough contrast and variety to allow the disc to be heard in one sitting, though picking out a selection still seems to be a more profitable way of taking advantage of an excellent programme. That care is extended to the following song, Während des Regens, in which the constant staccato movement in the piano part, suggesting rain – a little more word-painting from Brahms – complements beautifully the smooth lines of the vocal part in which the lover seeks to use the bad weather to his advantage. With his subtle variation of vocal colour and a few judicious portamenti, Appl is particularly convincing here.

Among the real surprises is the first of two songs entitled Serenade. The protagonist places himself, no doubt, beneath his beloved’s window and accompanies himself, in the case of this poem, on the zither. Appl adopts an irresistibly seductive tone for what is undoubtedly an erotic song, a point made in detail in Graham Johnson’s notes. One does not necessarily associate Brahms with lightness of touch – though as soon as one starts to think about the subject one realises that one should – but this is exactly what is demonstrated in this wonderful song, underscored by some delicious modulations.

The four songs from Op. 63 are not, on the whole, top-rate Brahms and will be unfamiliar to many collectors. Johnson writes that An die Tauben is not treated to ‘one of Brahms’ most inspired melodies’, but his commentaries are revealing and a real help to the listener. The most satisfying of the group is probably Frühlingstrost, a challenging song for both singer and pianist. It is here, and in one or two of the folk song arrangements with which this excellent disc closes, that a certain dryness creeps into Appl’s voice, something I have never noticed before.

William Hedley

Liebe und Frühling I, Op. 3/2 (1853) [1:52]
Liebe und Frühling II, Op. 3/3 (1853) [1:47]
Nachwirkung (1852), Op. 6/3 [2:16]
Vor dem Fenster (1858), Op. 14/1 [4:14]
Trennung, Op. 14/5 (1858) [1:56]
Ich schell mein Horn ins Jammertal, Op. 43/3 [3:34]
Das Lied vom Herrn von Falkenstein, Op. 43/4 [3:59]
O liebliche Wangen, Op. 47/4 [1:53]
In meiner Nächte Sehnen, Op. 57/5 (1871) [1:42]
Blinde Kuh, Op. 58/1 (1871) [1:29]
Während des Regens, Op. 58/2 (1871) [1:22]
Serenade, Op. 58/8 [4:40]
Eine gute, gute Nacht, Op. 59/6 (1873) [2:11]
Frühlingstrost. Op. 63/1 (1874) [3:34]
Erinnerung, Op. 63/2 (1874) [3:33]
An ein Bild, Op. 63/3 (1874) [4:09]
An die Tauben, Op. 63/4 (1874) [2:13]
Serenade, Op. 70/3 [1:38]
Nachtigall, Op. 97/1 [2:43]
Verrat, Op. 105/5 (1886) [3:55]
from 49 Deutsche Volkslieder:
14: Maria ging aus wandern
17: Ach Gott, wie weh tut Scheiden
18: So wünsch ich ihr ein' gute Nacht
24: Mir ist ein schön's braun's Maidelein
27: Ich stand auf hohem Berge
28: Es reit ein Herr und auch sein Knecht
32: So will ich frisch und fröhlich sein
39: Schöner Augen schöne Strahlen


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