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Ann Murray, DBE [Photo by Sian Trenberth]
22 Jan 2014

Songlives: Johannes Brahms

This recital, part of an inventive series overseen by pianist Malcolm Martineau, did exactly what it said on the tin: it journeyed the length of Brahms’ creative life as a composer of songs, from his earliest adolescent essays, through the early years of expansion and experiment, to the period of maturity and confidence as the composer established himself in Vienna, concluding with the moving, nuanced testaments of Brahms’ final years.

Songlives: Johannes Brahms

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Ann Murray, DBE [Photo by Sian Trenberth]


Taking us along these autobiographical paths were bass-baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann and, standing in for the indisposed Bernada Fink, soprano Ann Murray. Both singers adopted a wonderfully sincere and direct approach: nothing was exaggerated or overstated but the vocal lines were allowed to blossom in response to heightened emotion or drama in an unaffected but thoughtful and well-considered fashion.

Müller-Brachmann commenced ‘The early years’ with the unusually brief ‘Heimkehr’ (Homecoming). Described by Susan Youens in her detailed programme notes as ’21 bars of agitated, rapturous emotion’, the song presents an impetuous lover’s appeal to the natural world not to come to an apocalyptic end until he has hastened to his beloved’s side! Despite its brevity, the song enabled Müller-Brachmann to exhibit the admirable qualities which would be on display throughout the evening: a powerful intensity matched by an eloquent and controlled delivery, the text crystal clear, the dramatic and emotional focus encapsulated without undue exaggeration. ‘Die Überläufer’ (The deserter) revealed the bass-baritone’s full, burnished lower register, complementing the darkly erotic imagery of the anonymous text; as the poet-narrator expresses wonder ‘Daß mein Schatz so falsch könnt’ sein’ (that my darling could be so false) a delicate enhancement of ‘so falsch könnt’ neatly conveyed the protagonist’s anguish.

In this part of the programme, Murray and Müller-Brachmann alternated, Murray’s renditions of ‘In der Fremde’ (In a foreign land) and ‘Liebestreu’ (True love) interwoven between the bass-baritone’s numbers. In the former, Murray displayed a serene composure and sweet pianissimo to evoke the wistfulness of Eichendorff’s text; the glowing lustre of the voice may be more restrained than of former years, but there is no doubting the expressive beauty of the soprano’s innately well-crafted melodic lines. At the piano, Martineau contributed enormously to the communicative power of these songs: in ‘Liebstrau’, as so often throughout the evening, the engaging interplay between voice and accompaniment, and the particularly impressive clarity of the left hand figures and counter-melodies, was notable.

‘New Paths’ was the title of an article published by Robert Schumann in October 1853 in which he expressed his admiration for the music of the then 20-year-old Brahms. Müller-Brachmann’s ‘Ständchen’ (Serenade) combined a gentle vocal restraint with tight rhythms in the accompaniment and very effective use of rubato, especially in the piano postlude, creating both lightness of spirit and depth of feeling. The forward momentum quickened in ‘Der Ganz zum Lieben’ (The walk to the beloved), the lilting motifs sweeping onwards as the lover hurried towards his loved one’s home, before another could steal her love. In contrast, the initial focused tranquillity of Murray’s ‘An eine Äolsharfe’ gave way to moments of dramatic intensity, the recitative-like vocal melody of the opening expanding lyrically above a bed of rich major harmonies. The performers’ appreciation of the spacious structure of this song, the first of Brahms’ truly ambitious songs, was impressive.

Müller-Brachmann led the sequence of songs of ‘First Maturity’. ‘Wehe, so willst du mich wieder’ (Alas, would you one again) was characterised by an ardent tone and energised repetitions of the text; ‘Wie bist du, meine Königin’ (How blissful, my queen) adopted a more relaxed, intimate air, before flourishing with the enraptured lines, ‘Ach, über alles was da blüht,/ Ist deine , woonevoll!’ (Ah! More blissful than all that blooms is your blissful bloom). The warm, openness of the assonant vowels beautifully conveyed the poet’s passion. In ‘Keinen hat es noch gereut’ (No man has yet rued) - the first of two texts from the echt medieval romance, Die schöne Magelone - the bass-baritone brought added weight to the voice, authoritatively communicated the narrative of the knight Peter of Provence’s search for fame and love. Here and in the subsequent ‘Sind es Schmerzen’ (Are these sorrows), Müller-Brachmann established a compelling stage presence, his touching lyricism and even, focused tone - as steady at the top of the voice as at the bottom - conveying the tale with naturalism and ease. Once again the clarity and definition of Martineau’s accompanying textures, and the precision of the rhythmic and harmonic ostinatos, contributed greatly to the story-telling.

In ‘Am Sonntag Morgen’ (On Sunday morning) and ‘Die Mainacht’ (May night), Murray demonstrated a persuasive emotional range, richness and transparency alternating in the former - in which the poet-narrator hides his melancholy from the public world - while pianist and soprano built to a climactic intensity in the latter; as ‘die ensame Träne/ Bebt mir heißer die Wang’ herab’ (the lonely tear quivers more ardently down my cheek), the harmonic and timbral variety of the piano postlude embodied the desperate flow of the poet’s tears. The dialogue between a young maid and her sweetheart in ‘Von weiger Liebe’ (Eternal love) was full of drama, the dark colours of the introduction and the opening stanza creating an air of anticipation and changes of tempi and mode pointedly conveying the twists and turns of the lovers’ interaction, the piano left hand serving both as a directional guide and a melodic commentator.

Murray presented the first and last of the songs which marked Brahms’ years ‘Established in Vienna’. The effortless arcs of the soprano lines in ‘Auf dem See’ (On the lake) wonderfully depicted the graceful progress of the rocking boat, and were enhanced by tender enhancements of details, such as the thrilling shimmer of the mountains ‘weiß im reinen Schnee’ (white in pure snow) and the well-proportioned emphasis on ‘Glück und Friede’ (happiness and peace) which the poet-narrator’s heart absorbs from the heavenly image before him. Martineau’s postlude to ‘Meine Liebe ist grün’ was full of excitement and grandeur - reportedly, Clara Schumann rejoiced that she loved to play it ‘over and over again’!

The songs of ‘The Last Twenty Years’ began with ‘Therese’, Murray insouciantly playing the older woman who is attracted to the younger man but cannot resist teasing him. Martineau’s flourish of fluid triplets introduced the soprano’s quasi-arioso melody which gradually awakens and blooms, before subsiding in the slow final verse where once again voice and accompaniment conversed harmoniously - the vocal melody enhancing the piano’s restatement of the original theme, the off-beat interjections in the bass adding to the air of mystery. In ‘Sapphische Ode’ (Sapphic Ode) the pulsing syncopations in the accompaniment enriched Murray’s warm timbre, especially in the second stanza; similarly the off-beat propulsion in the bass of ‘Schön war, das ich dir weihte’ (Fair was my gift to you) thoughtfully supported the vocal line. Murray’s rising phrase, ‘Süß war der Laute Ton’ (sweet was the sound of the lute), was charmingly beautiful.

Müller-Brachmann has all the required technical and interpretative qualities for ‘Mit vierzig Jahren’ (At forty), one of Brahms’s most sensitive and moving songs, in which a young man looks back to his childhood and forward to death. The performers’ drew forth every ounce of meaning suggested by the unsettled, sometimes sinister, harmonies and melodies intervals, before finding a calm resignation at the close. Likewise, the conclusion to ‘Auf dem Kirchhofe’ (In the churchyard) wonderfully captured the sense of revelation and affirmation, in the healing repetition of the chorale-like piano chords. In contrast, in the surprisingly terse ‘Kein Haus, keine Heimat’ (No house, no homeland), the bass-baritone replaced sonorous tone with austerity and sombreness.

The singers came together for the final three folksongs of this section. In the impetuous ‘Wie komm’ ich den zur Tür herein’ (How shall I get in at the door), the rhythmically lithe piano part suggested the lovers’ eagerness to deceive the maiden’s vigilant mother. The dramatic development in the strophic ‘So wünsch ich ihr ein’ gute Nacht’ (So I bid her goodnight) was conveyed with flowing ease, enhanced by Martineau’s contrapuntal dialogues. The more plaintive ‘Schwesterlein’ made for a subdued close and, after the urgency and haste of the central section, as the young man presses his little sister to join him in a dance, the gradual rallentando was skilfully managed.

‘At the end’ comprised two songs from Vier ernster Gesänge Op.121, both settings of biblical texts. The first, ‘Denn es gehet dem Menschen’ (For that which befalleth the sons of men), with its stirring low tessitura, repeating bass motifs and sudden changes of tempo, was skilfully crafted by Müller-Brachmann and Martineau, communicating the insistent affirmation of the value of a man’s work in the piano’s almost violent final chords. In contrast, ‘Wenn ich mit Menschen’ (Though I speak with the tongues of men) brought the recital to a more peaceful conclusion. Two short encores sent the audience home replete with the quiet joy of ‘Gute Abend, Gute Nacht’.

So many of these songs seem, at first glance or hearing, fairly straightforward settings whose melodies have a folk-like simplicity and whose strophic forms indulge in little text repetition. Yet, this very brevity and economy often underpins their deep expressive power: the slightest inflections of harmony, the subtlest of rhythmic tensions, a sudden rise and fall of melodic contour, a surprising dynamic change - all these elements combine to communicate a deeply felt sensibility with immediacy and impact. In the hands of these three performers, the sensitive, proportionate eloquence of ‘Brahms the song writer’ was unfailingly and movingly evident.

Claire Seymour

Performers and Programme:

Ann Murray DBE mezzo-soprano, Hanno Müller-Brachmann bass-baritone, Malcolm Martineau, piano. Wigmore Hall, LondonMonday 13th January 2014.

The early years: ‘Heimkehr’, ‘In der Fremde’, ‘Der Überläufer’, ‘Liebestreu’

New Paths: ‘Ständchen’, ‘An eine Äolsharfe’, ‘Der Gang zum Liebchen’

First Maturity: ‘Wehe, so willst du mich wieder’, ‘Wie bist du, meine Königin’, ‘Keinen hat es noch gereut’, ‘Sind es Schmerzen’, ‘Am Sonntag Morgen’, Die Mainacht’, ‘An die Nachtigall’, ‘Von ewiger Liebe’

Established in Vienna: ‘Auf dem See’, ‘Regenlied’, ‘Ach, wende diesen Blick’, ‘Meine Liebe ist grün’

The last twenty years: ‘Therese’, ‘Mit vierzig Jahren’, ‘Sapphische Ode’, ‘Kein Haus, keine Heimat’, ‘Schön war, das ich dir weihte’, ‘Auf dem Kirchhofe’, ‘Mäddchenlied’, ‘Wie komm’ ich den zur Tür herein’, ‘So wünsch’ ich ihr ein’gute Nacht’, ‘Schwesterlein’

At the End: ‘Denn es gehet dem Menschen’, ‘Wenn ich mit Menschen’

The next recital in the Songlives series takes place on Sunday 26 January 2014 at 4pm: Songlives: Rachmaninov, Katherine Broderick soprano; Andrei Bondarenko baritone; Malcolm Martineau piano

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