01 Jun 2011

Brahms Liebesliederwalzer, Wigmore Hall, London

Any performance of Brahms and Schumann four part songs is an occasion.

They aren’t performed live as often as they should be because they need four singers, two pianists and plenty of flair.

At this recital in London’s Wigmore Hall, the singers were Bernarda Fink, Sylvia Schwartz, Michael Schade and Robert Holl. The pianists were Malcolm Martineau and Justus Zeyen.

Appropriately, the evening began with Schumann’s Spanische Liebeslieder op 138 (1849) for they use the same forces as Brahms was to use in his two Liebeslieder Walzer op 52 and 65. Although Schumann’s song are set to Emanuel Giebell’s translations of Spanish and Portuguese texts, they’re not overtly Iberian. These charming songs would have been performed quite happily by talented amateur ensembles. This is sociable music, ideal for discreet flirations, perhaps. Weh, wie zornig ist das Mädchen, the men sing in mock alarm, in a song about an angry girl rushing off in a huff to the mountains. Then Fink sings Hoch, hoch sind die Berge about a girl upset because her lover’s headed for the hills. Joyful repartee, perfectly in order.

Brahms would have known the Schumann songs well, but, as Richard Stokes writes in his programme notes, they are not a “prototype” for the songs Brahms was to write twenty and twenty five years later. Brahms takes the concept of part song to an altogether more sophisticated level. Solo voices alternate with full ensemble, or divide into pairs. Voices sing in harmony, then suddenly revert to polyphony. Intervals and rhythms change. Sometimes the singers sing rounds, sometimes they weave intricate patterns around each other. In really good performances, the singing seems to almost levitate with energy. Significantly, Brahms called these songs Walzer, not Gesänge. They’re waltzes for the voice.

Moods change from the gruff, mock bucolic humour of O die Frauen to the elegant, arched lines of Wie des Abends where the female voices throw the words. “Einem, einem” and “Sonder, Ende, Wonne, sprühn” as if the vowels were garlands. Notice how Brahms pairs songs as partners to one another, and creates long cotillions, where songs move in formation, without a break between them.

Brahms doesn’t merely paint text, he works meaning into form itself. In Die grüne Hopfenranke, the four voices trill and entwine like the tendrils of the vine they’re singing about.

In this repertoire, Bernarda Fink was superlative. Her voice dances brightly, like the belle of the ball. When she needs depth, her voice darkens expressively. In Wahre, wahre, deinen Sohn, her voice becomes the witch/seductress who’ll kill if she can’t get her man. It’s an important song, for its adds menace to what on the surface seems a light hearted, lilting series of songs.

Robert Holl, too, was superb. Although he’s no longer in the first flush of youth, his technique is so good that he can bring agility to his voice which is rich and veers towards the darker range of his fach. He uses it well for dramatic effect, but here he moderated himself at times to blend in unison. That’s a sign of his artistic integrity. A lesser man might want to shine at the expense of the group. Holl knows that it’s ensemble that counts in these songs, not showmanship per se. He was a last minute substitute for Thomas Quasthoff, who was unwell, but Holl’s so experienced and so impressive, that it was no loss.

Some of the finest songs in both Brahms sets are written to showcase the tenor, and Michael Schade delivered well. Since the programme was devised around Quasthoff (the main pianist, Justus Zeyen, is Quasthoff’s regular partner), a Schreier or Prégardien would distract from the baritone part. Schade is good, though, providing a nice balance with Holl’s almost basso resonance.

The soprano was Sylvia Schwartz, a new name to me. She’s been in ensemble at the Deutsche Staatsoper, Berlin where her roles have included Zerlina. She doesn’t quite have the experience as the others and at times sounded pinched and exposed. It was heartening, though, to hear how Fink shielded Schwartz, giving her room so she could build confidence. Another sign of an artist who puts music before ego. Indeed, this is why part-songs like these are so enjoyable. Just as in a string quartet, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Anne Ozorio


Robert Schumann: Spanische Liebeslieder op 138

Johannes Brahms: Liebeslieder Walzer op 52, An die Heimat, Der Abend, O schöne Nacht, Abendlied Neue Liebeslieder Walzer op 65,