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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Songs of Loss and Betrayal
Lieder und Gesänge von G F Daumer, Op. 57 [17:35]
Fünf Lieder, Op. 105 [13:31]
Fünf Lieder, Op. 94 [10:24]
Lieder und Gesänge, Op. 32 [20:18]
Simon Wallfisch (baritone), Edward Rushton (piano)
re. St John the Evangelist, Oxford, 25-27 November 2019
Sung texts with English translations enclosed

In his notes to the ongoing Hyperion series of the complete songs by Brahms, Graham Johnson discusses at length whether the composer intended or even hoped that the songs from a particular opus group would be performed as a unit. Obviously the customs during the 19th century were rather that the singer chose and picked his/her favourite songs and Brahms himself preferred to hear just a few of his songs on a special occasion. Moreover he also preferred to listen to the songs as Hausmusik, in an intimate surrounding for a limited number of listeners, rather than in a recital hall. In Brahms’s days singers also frequently picked songs from strict cycles, like Dichterliebe, and sang them as isolated items out of context. Today that is rather unlikely to happen. But songs that are not connected can with advantage be put together to an attractive programme and one rarely sees Brahms programmes that are strictly organized in opus groups. The only groups in Brahms’s song oeuvre that are closely connected are Die schöne Magelone and Vier ernste Gesänge, his testament and farewell to the genre.

On the present disc however, Simon Wallfisch and Edward Rushton present four complete opus groups under the collective title “Songs of Loss and Betrayal”. They span most of his mature life, from Lieder und Gesänge, Op. 32 from 1864, when Brahms had just turned 30, to Fünf Lieder, Op. 105, from 1886 and 1888. He was only in his mid-50s but his youth was already far back in time and he had adopted his long grey beard that made him look like an Old Testament prophet. Though Brahms even in his youth was no joker, many of his early songs were permeated with light and warmth, but those ingredients are far away in the majority of the songs on the present disc – and most prominently in the nine songs Op. 32. Though they are the earliest on the disc they are placed last – possibly because the concluding Wie bist du, meine Königin, however sad and desolate it is, it also gives him bliss. Even death itself is blissful, as the last line says in Edward Rushton’s excellent translation. So there is consolation after all. The song in itself is one of Brahms’s finest and Simon Wallfisch’s tender-hearted reading of it brings the programme to a magical end.

None of the preceding eight songs belong to the select group of “Brahms’s Greatest Hits”, which in no way means that they are uninteresting. But the melancholy that is omnipresent can make them forbidding. All the poems in this group are by August von Platen and Georg Friedrich Daumer, and the latter was a poet Brahms returned to more often than any other. Daumer (1800 – 1875) was held in high esteem during his lifetime as poet and philosopher and was among other things inspired by the Persian 14th century poet Hafiz, whose verses he also translated. As a curiosity can be mentioned that he also was the tutor of the foundling Kaspar Hauser. Today his poetry has lost some of its attraction but obviously it pulled at Brahms’s heartstrings. What inspired Brahms to compose this group – it isn’t exactly a cycle but thematically the poems are closely connected – can only be pure guesswork but Nigel Simeone in his liner notes points at two factors in his private life: at a Christmas party in 1863 he was about to propose marriage to the singer Ottilie Hauer but found at the last moment that she had become engaged to another man that same morning. The better-known lifelong but unrequited infatuation with Clara Schumann may be another plausible factor. Whatever the truth is the songs are worth listening to for the dark glow and intensity and Simon Wallfisch milks them of every drop of feeling – always alert to the texts. There are also streaks of warmth creeping in. Listen to Du sprichst, daß ich mich täuschte and Bitteres zu sagen denkst du.

If we turn back to the beginning of the disc and the eight songs Op. 57 from 1871, we meet a composer still in his late 30s. All the poems are by Daumer and here the touch is lighter, occasionally even youthfully exuberant as in the opening song Von waldbekränzter Höhe. He can be softly lyrical and contemplative. There is certainly an aura of deep infatuation with sexual undertones throughout the group, directed towards an unnamed woman, but according again to Nigel Simeone she has a name: Clara Schumann. And there is distinct musical evidence. Brahms had developed a cypher for Clara, the notes C – B – A – G sharp – A interpreted as C – (L) – A – (R) – A. This theme appears in several places throughout this group. Simeone quotes two instances where the Clara theme appears when the physical presence of the beloved is evoked: in song No. 6 Strahlt zuweilen auch ein mildes Licht at the words Auf mich hin aus diesem Angesicht (On me from your countenance), and on the final line of No. 7 Die Schnur, die Perl an Perle at the words An eine solche Brust (On such a breast). With this knowledge in mind while listening an extra dimension is added to the songs. Simon Wallfisch’s beautiful and nuanced singing with excellent enunciation further adds to the experience.

In the five songs Op. 94 from 1883-84 we find two of Brahms’s Greatest Hits: Friedrich Rückert’s Mit vierzig Jahren, and Sapphische Ode, a setting of a poem by Hans Schmidt. Brahms composed the former at the request of Rückert’s daughter, at about the same time that he also set his Gestillte Sehnsucht, the first of the two songs Op. 91 for alto, viola and piano. Both belong to his masterpieces. The remaining three songs from Op. 94, though less well-known, are also worthy examples of Brahms’s refined lieder art. Simon Wallfisch also treats them with all the sensitivity which is his hallmark. His care over nuances is exemplary.

And so is his singing of the five songs Op. 105, which to my mind at least are possibly the best of his total oeuvre, regarded as a group. They certainly are a unit, even though Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer stands out, especially in so sensitive and deeply felt reading.

The programme as a whole may be forbidding due to the overriding gloominess, but playing the songs with text in hand, and preferably one group at a time, certainly pays dividends, and Simon Wallfisch and Edward Rushton are admirably confident in their readings. The baritone’s tone occasionally hardens and adopts a quite prominent vibrato in heavy passages, but that is a minor complaint. By and large this is a deeply satisfying programme, expertly recorded.

Göran Forsling

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