Johannes Brahms, Lieder, Complete Edition, Vol. 8
Juliane Banse (soprano), Andreas Schmidt (baritone), Helmut Deutsch (piano)
cpo 999 448-2 [CD]
This latest release in the collaborative project to record the complete songs of Johannes Brahms focuses on four opus numbers, among the last groups of Lieder to be so designated by Brahms. The present recording represents typical songs from the so-called mature composer, most of these having been written between 1883-88. Each of the opus numbers includes a mix of texts drawn from the works of contemporary, well known poets and from the milieu of popular folk-songs. As an example of this mix, the songs from op. 97 comprise settings of poems by Reinhold, Alexis, and Groth, as well as two songs for which the source is simply given as Volkslied. As in most of the previous releases of this project, the singers Juliane Banse and Andreas Schmidt divide the repertoire and are accompanied by the pianist Helmut Deutsch.
The first group of songs from op. 95 focuses on popular songs adapted from Serbian and on texts by the poet Friedrich Halm. Common to both groups as set by Brahms are modulations or changes in tempo in the final part of individual songs. The two vocalists in this recording show an especially sensitive awareness at communicating such shifts in mood. In the first song of op. 95, "Das Mädchen" ("The Maiden") — designated as "Serbian song" — a young woman reflects on the possibilities of being kissed by an older or younger man. In the last section of the piece the tempo increases as she vows to cover her face with rose-water in anticipation of a younger suitor. Banse conveys the excitement of the young woman through a brighter tone toward the close as well as a subtle yet increasing aspiration, both matched by the accompanist in attentive support of the singer. In the third song from this same group, "Beim Abschied" ("At Parting") based on a text by Halm, Andreas Schmidt achieves a similar effect by following an opposite interpretive move. The lyrical voice in this song had endured many tedious individuals among his acquaintance if only for the chance of a fleeting moment with the beloved. As his thoughts dwell on her in the final two verses, the tempo slows noticeably starting at the words "nur die Eine" ("just that one"); Schmidt and the accompanist Deutsch imitate the lingering sentiments of the man and underscore the commitment to "that one" as opposed to indifference for the others. Through his use of distended vowels in these verses Schmidt emphasizes the mood of expectancy, resulting in a feigned patience for the "die anderen" ("the others").
Three of the four songs from op. 96 derive from poems by Heinrich Heine, all of which are here sung by the baritone. Schmidt brings to these songs a sense of the dichotomy present in Brahms's own musical interpretations of Heine's poems. In "Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht" ("Death, it is the cool night"), op. 96, no.1, an opposition is set up from the initial verses between death/night and life/day. The lyrical voice is first identified in the transition between day and night, as twilight takes over and the voice begins to fall into a dreamy sleep. From these elements Schmidt uses his voice to render an interpretive version of the song which suits the ambivalence of Brahms's setting. His voice rises upward on "Nacht" ("night"), yet "Tag" ("day") takes on the tone established for death at the start of the song. Once the voice moves in transition toward the dream, Schmidt invokes the word "Tag" differently, and his farewell to the mundane allows for the vision of love in the second strophe. Here love is indeed celebrated — and proclaimed with varying, joyful intonations as Schmidt recalls the nightingale — until the realization, in closing with a decreasing tempo, that his vision occurs only in a dream. These same oppositions predominate in "Es schauen die Blumen" ("All the flowers gaze") op.96, no.3, also based on a text by Heine. The generalizing word "alle" is used twice in rhyme during the first strophe to indicate the natural habits of flowers and streams. Yet the third instance of "alle," proclaimed in resounding elation by Schmidt at the second strophe, refers to love-songs and human emotions, which filter back to the beloved. This hopefulness causes the final word "trüb" ("gloomy") to be sung on a higher, softer note, as though the voice wishes to communicate sadness yet determination in the expectation of love.
The late songs of Brahms have often been typified as overly sentimental: such judgement being indeed an oversimplification, as this collection clearly shows. In addition to the examples discussed above, the last two opus numbers included in this recording — opp. 97 and 105 — show the mature composer continuing to treat sentiment in a sophisticated, independent style. From op. 105 the song "Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer" ("Ever fainter grows my slumber"), based on a poem by Hermann von Lingg, depicts a woman aware of her impending death yet preoccupied with thoughts of a beloved. During the initial description of sorrow and care the accompanist supports the soprano Banse in her reflective state. Once the thought of dreams begins in this strophe, the woman slips into a reverie of hearing her lover call outside the door. As the text indicates that no one is able to open her door for the man, the accompaniment changes to a separate voice of impending frustration for the woman; together with this instrumental contrast, Banse uses her own voice to indicate varying shifts in mood ranging from expectancy to disappointment. Although the dream ends at this point, the second strophe elucidates a continuing spectrum of emotions. A final cry, "o komme bald!" ("O come soon") is expressed in both rising tones of hope and the quiet mood of resignation.
The song repertoire of Brahms is both rich and varied, as evident from the four groups of Lieder in this recording. Because of the degree of character and mood portrayal, the decision to use several singers is well taken. Such thoughtful and dramatic performances by Banse, Schmidt, and Deutsch will surely encourage further listening of the larger corpus of songs composed by Brahms.