Historically-Informed Brahms Lieder?

cover PC10419

BRAHMS: Heimkehr, Op. 7.1 Liebestreu, Op. 3/1.1 4 Lieder, Op. 43: Nos. 1 & 2.1 Lieder und Gesänge, Opp. 57-59: Excerpts.1 8 Lieder & Gesänge, Op. 59/5.2 3 Duette, Op. 20.1,2 4 Duette, Op. 61: 1, 3 & 4.1,2 Lieder und Gesänge, Op. 32.3 5 Duette, Op. 66.1,2 4 Balladen und Romanzen, Op. 75: Nos. 2 & 4.1,2  6 Lieder, Op. 86: Nos. 1-3.2 5 Lieder, Op. 94: Nos. 4 & 5.2 8 Zigeunerlieder, Op. 103.2 5 Lieder, Op. 105: Nos. 1-4.2 4 Lieder, Op. 96: Nos. 1-2.1 5 Lieder, Op. 106: Nos. 1 & 3.1 5 Lieder, Op. 104: Nos. 2 & 5 1 / 1Rachel Harnisch, sop; 2Marina Viotti, mezzo; 3Yannick Debus, bar; Jan Schultsz, pno / Panclassics PC 10419

The premise of this album is explained in the liner notes written by pianist Jan Schultsz:

For decades, when we picture Brahms we think of this one image – a serious old man with a big beard. And this is exactly how we have got to know his music: not too cheerful, a little melancholic, let’s say, rather grey. But if we imagine that Brahms did not actually wear a beard at all until he was 45 years old, we can also ask ourselves, was Brahms really the man we always thought he was, and is his music really the way we have always heard it? Especially the young Brahms and the music of his early years? To this day there are no historically informed recordings of Brahms’ Lieder which take research and new insights into account, yet if one adheres to his original articulation and phrasing, an especially charming interpretation of the music can be found, revealing many new aspects of his compositions. Our attempt at emphasizing the lightness and transparency of the works has shown us Brahms as a composer who insists on text-expression, and this has given us a picture of the composer as we may not yet know him.

A personal note: Anyone who doesn’t know that the young Brahms not only had a sense of humor, or that he kept his sense of humor into middle age, are obviously ill-informed about him. If you read any biography of Brahms, you’ll know that he made most of his money as a young man playing piano in the whorehouses at the Leipzig docks and that he was an avid fan of gypsy music. What do you think his “Hungarian Dances” are? Certainly not the folk dances of the native people who lived in the country, but rather of the gypsies that passed through. Moreover, his light touch is also evident in the Liebeslieder Waltzes, which come from later in his career. (Music critic Eduard Hanslick absolutely detested them; he thought they were “beneath” Brahms’ “lofty” goals.) And let us not forget the gypsy tune and rhythms that he used in the last movement of his Piano Quartet No. 1, a piece that was later orchestrated by Arnold Schoenberg (and which, for a while, was referred to as “Brahms’ Fifth Symphony”). Brahms always had a dual nature, deadly seriousness and playfulness, but rarely did he put both into the same piece of music.

This album is essentially split between soprano Rachel Harnisch and mezzo-soprano Marina Viotti. Baritone Yannick Debus gets but one group of songs, the nine Lieder und Gesänge, Op. 32, but he is excellent as well. To be perfectly honest, the opening song, Heimkehr, isn’t exactly the lightest or most cheerful Brahms on this set, and Harnisch’s voice isn’t really warmed up on it: she sounds almost uncontrollably fluttery, although with a lovely tone and relatively good interpretive qualities. Schultsz plays an 1871 Streicher model piano from 1871, to which I say, big whoop-de-doo. A piano is a piano. We don’t really need to hear a piano from the composer’s own era in order to appreciate his or her music, but he is an excellent player and accompanist despite having a smaller sound palette to work with.

The lighter Brahms really emerges in the three Op. 20 duets, although it is mostly Schultsz who provides that lightness. Although I like Harnisch’s voice quite a bit, it is a “creamy” soprano and not a bright, tightly focused one. Had they been able to find a modern equivalent to Elisabeth Schumann’s voice, Panclassics would have been able to project the lightness of the music just a bit better.

Debus has a flicker-vibrato in his voice, but it is even and controlled and, like the two women, he has excellent diction. His timbre is really nice, with a touch of Hermann Prey in it. These, too, are not really “jolly” Brahms songs, being mostly in minor keys.

Bottom line: it’s a very nice album but not a keeper. Although each singer tries his or her best to interpret these songs, none of them really gets more than surface-deep as a rule. But it is a pleasant album to listen to!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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