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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
The Songs - Volume 9
Robin Tritschler (tenor)
Harriet Burns (soprano)
Graham Johnson (piano)
rec. 2018, All Saints‘ Church, East Finchley, London
Sung texts with English translations enclosed
HYPERION CDJ33129 [74:13]

Hyperion’s admirable cycle of Brahms’s complete songs, masterminded and accompanied by the indefatigable Graham Johnson, has been long on its way. Volume 1 with Angelika Kirchschlager was recorded in August 2008 and was issued in June 2010. Then volume after volume have arrived at a steady but not rushed speed, roughly one disc a year. It seems however that it has accelerated towards the end. Volume 8 with Harriet Burns, who then made her recording debut, was reviewed by Roy Westbrook in October 2019 and by myself the following month. Now, after just a half-year, it’s time for volume 9, and here Robin Tritschler, who was Ms Burns’s sidekick in a few of the German folk songs, now is at the helm with his former mate as assistant.

As has been the rule in this series each CD is a self-contained recital that opens with some of Brahms’s earliest songs and then continues roughly chronologically to Maienkätzchen from his penultimate group of songs (opus 107), followed by a good handful of his German Folksongs, which actually were even later creations. Thus we can follow the composer’s development during a period of more than 40 years.

Brahms was a prolific composer of art songs, around 200, but to this can be added scores of folksongs, where the melodies were “traditional” but the accompaniments and harmonisations were his own. Compared to Schubert’s and Schumann’s songs, relatively few of Brahms’s are well-known. Of the 21 songs on the present disc – if we exclude the concluding folksongs – only two belong to that category: Vergebliches Ständchen (tr. 13) and Feldeinsamkeit (tr. 17). But Brahms was conscientious and self-critical and hardly satisfied with half-measures, and when one listens closely and sometimes repeatedly, one always finds things to admire, though admittedly his inspiration is seldom so immediate and spontaneous as Schubert’s and Schumann’s. Even Graham Johnson in his always penetrating and generous liner notes, admits that concerning Ade! (tr. 15) “The melody is not among Brahms’s most memorable”. But it has appeal even so, and when sung so sensitively and beautifully as here, every criticism is silenced. Robin Tritschler, whose recent recording Song’s First Cycle was awarded a RECOMMENDED tag, impressed me deeply and I can’t resist quoting my impression of his singing in that review: “[He] is the possessor of one of the most beautiful and well-equalized voices now before the public, but what makes him stand out as a song interpreter is his inquisitive mind and innate understanding of the texts and his ability to convey their messages through his expressive handling of words.” Those lines are completely valid for the present disc as well. Every song is shaped to perfection and even though I try to follow the texts it sometimes happens that I shut my eyes and savour the song as pure singing. It doesn’t last for more than a few seconds, since his eager handling of the text insists upon my attention, but his singing is a lesson in nuanced bel canto. His dynamic range may not be as wide as some more powerful singers’ but Brahms is seldom a man of big gestures.

When I now survey the songs briefly and discriminately I note his excellent legato in Mondnacht, his sensitivity in Der Frühling, the intensity of Tambourliedchen and the elegance of Vergebliches Ständchen, where he is joined by Harriet Burns, maybe not as sophisticated as Tritschler but her folksong like simplicity is attractive. Spannung is, like the previous song, designated for two voices, and the folksong feeling is tangible also here. The melancholy atmosphere in In Waldeseinsamkeit is well expressed, and Tritschler sings with noble restraint. The slow tempo, Langsam, doesn’t exclude some feeling of forward movement. Langsam is also the tempo indication for Feldeinsamkeit, which is sung almost breathlessly. Georg Friedrich Daumer was a poet to whom Brahms returned on several occasions, seemingly fascinated by his orientalism. The text to Schön war, das ich dir weihte is a translation from traditional Turkish, but I can’t honestly say that I detect much orientalism in the music. It is, as the tempo indication says, Einfach (Simple), and it mirrors, as Graham Johnson puts it, the ageing composer’s “suffering when it came to love – devotion unrewarded, unjust rejection, worship without hope of reciprocation”.

The nine German folksongs that conclude the programme are delightful. I learnt them quite early in the mid-1960s through the now legendary EMI set with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, accompanied by Gerald Moore. Simplicity was hardly the buzzword for those two singers, but their uninhibited joy and their verbal acuity conveyed the folksiness and I still return with pleasure to those LPs, now transferred to CD. Robin Tritschler – and in three of the songs joined by Harriet Burns – have a much simpler approach that sounds wholly natural – and they bring this satisfying programme to a glorious end.

With singing of such distinction as we encounter here, even the more obscure songs come to life, and Graham Johnson’s accompaniments further heightens the listening experience. As a footnote he also mentions that Vergebliches Ständchen was the first Brahms song he was asked to accompany, which certainly mush have been a nostalgia trip for him. If I add that reading Graham’s all-embracing notes on each of the songs further enhances the value of this issue, there is no need for me to apologize for the Recommended tag.

Göran Forsling
1. Mondnacht, WoO 21 [3:03]
2. In der Fremde, Op. 3 No. 5 [1:21]
3. Lied, OP. 3 No. 6 [2:07]
4. Der Frühling, Op. 6 No. 2 [3:32]
5. Nachtigallen schwingen, Op. Op. 6 No. 6 [2:17]
6. Vom verwunderten Knaben, Op. 14 No. 2 [2:48]
7. Gang zur Liebsten, Op. 14 No. 6 [2:17]
8. Sonntag, Op. 47 No. 3 [1:49]
9. An ein Veilchen, Op. 49 No. 2 [2:58]
10. Die Spröde, Op. 58 No. 3 [2:22]
11. In der Gasse, Op. 58 No. 6 [2:25]
12. Tambourliedchen, Op. 69 No. 5 [1: 43]
13. Vergebliches Ständchen, Op. 84 No. 4 [2:02]
14. Spannung, Op. 84 No. 5 [4:07]
15. Ade!, Op. 85 No. 4 [1:55]
16. In Waldeseinsamkeit, Op. 85 No. 6 [2:52]
17. Feldeinsamkeit, Op. 86 No. 2 [3:36]
18. Bei dir sind meine Gedanken, Op. 95 No. 2 [1:49]
19. Schön war, das ich dir weihte, Op. 95 No. 7 [2:04]
20. Entführung, Op. 97 No. 5 [1:28]
21. Maienkätzchen, Op. 107 No. 4 [1:23]
From 49 Deutsche Volkslieder, WoO33:
22. Sag mir, o schöne Schäfr’in mein [2:57]
23. Gar lieblich hat sich gesellet [2:13]
24. Es ritt ein Ritter [3:18]
25. Wach auf, mein Hort [2:46]
26. Mein Mädel hat einen Rosenmund [1:54]
27. Ach könnt ich diesen Abend [2:16]
28. Des Abends kann ich nicht schlafen gehen [2:40]
29. Ich weiß mir’n Maidlein hübsch und fein [3:19]
30. All mein Gedanken [2:37]

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