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Brahms - Complete Lieder Edition Volume 9

Release Date: 11/17/2009 
Label:  Cpo   Catalog #: 999840   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Iris VermillionHelmut DeutschAndreas SchmidtJuliane Banse
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
In Stock: Usually ships in 24 hours.  

Notes and Editorial Reviews

BRAHMS Songs, Vol. 9: Zigeunerlieder, op. 103. 1 5 Songs, op. 106. 3 5 Songs, op. 107. 2,3 Four Serious Songs, op. 121 3 Iris Vermillion (mez); 1 Juliane Banse Read more (sop); 2 Andreas Schmidt (bar); 2,3 Helmut Deutsch (pn) cpo 999840 (49:04 Text and Translation)

Up until now, Bernard Jacobson has been the critic of record to review cpo’s unfolding series of Brahms’s complete songs, though it appears from the Fanfare Archive that not all of the volumes have been covered. This latest release, designated Volume 9, was recorded between 1996 and 1999. Why it has taken more than 10 years to become available, at least here in the U.S., is one of those mysteries of the recording industry known only to a handful of secret society shamans sworn to silence.

There are few starker examples of contrasting moods and compositional modalities in two of Brahms’s contiguous works than exist between the “Double” Concerto, op. 102, and the Zigeunerlieder , op. 103, the latter following immediately upon the former in 1887. The composer described his settings of Hugo Conrats’s translations of Hungarian folk songs, originally written for vocal quartet with piano accompaniment, and 11 in number, as “excessively gay.” At 54, and financially secure, Brahms had no need of another commercial cash cow like his earlier Hungarian Dances and Liebeslieder Waltzes . Thus, it would seem that he composed the Zigeunerlieder purely for his own pleasure and enjoyment. Perhaps they reminded him of happier days as a young man touring with the Hungarian violinist Eduard Reményi. Two years later, Brahms recast eight of the 11 songs—Nos. 1 through 7 and 11—for solo voice and piano, the versions heard here and sung by Iris Vermillion. Competition in the solo voice versions comes mainly from a 1989 Deutsche Grammophon recording with Anne Sofie von Otter, and Margaret Price on a 1992 RCA CD. Interpretively, there’s not a significant difference—von Otter takes only five seconds longer to get through the eight songs, the longest of which, Kommt dir manchmal in den Sinn , lasts only two minutes. Price is the tortoise here, taking almost a full minute longer, and in the end, unlike the fable, she doesn’t win the race. These songs call for less heft and more gaiety than Price delivers. In side-by-side comparisons, I would have to say that it’s the timbre of von Otter’s voice that I prefer.

With the exception of the Four Serious Songs of 1896, the three sets of five songs each—opp. 105, 106, and 107—that Brahms wrote between 1885 and 1889 are his last utterances for solo voice and piano. The current cpo disc gives us the opp. 106 and 107. In musical style and vocabulary, these three groups of songs seem to prepare the way for the four groups of late piano pieces, opp. 116–118 of 1891–92. Set to the verses of mainly minor poets, a majority of the songs speak of longing and unrequited love, in itself nothing new to Brahms—but it’s the halting, irregular melodic lines in the voice and the vague, Impressionist harmonies in the piano that give these pieces a kind of disembodied character. One senses in Es hing der Reif and Meine Lieder from op. 106, and Das Mädchen spricht from op. 107, that there is as much being communicated in the silences of the rests as there is in the notes.

All of these songs will be found on many recordings by many singers, yet most appear to offer only one or two of them from each opus, mixing them with other of Brahms’s songs. Perhaps it’s because these late works are not as tuneful and immediately engaging as are so many of the composer’s earlier songs. Here, baritone Andreas Schmidt essays op. 106 by himself, but yields two of the op. 107 songs, Das Mädchen spricht and Mädchenlied, to soprano Juliane Banse.

Much of Brahms’s life was about loss and yearning for what might have been. He is quoted as once having told a friend, “Life robs one of more than death.” The year 1896 was a particularly difficult one for the composer. He had lost his closest confidant and perhaps the love of his life, Clara Schumann, whose funeral he made a 40-hour journey to Bonn to attend on May 24. Yet five months earlier, in January, he had traveled to Berlin to conduct both of his piano concertos with Eugène d’Albert as soloist. Between these two events, Brahms composed the Four Serious Songs , op. 121, his penultimate work, completing them on May 7. Clara had already suffered the incapacitating stroke from which she never recovered, but she lingered on until May 20. So while Brahms may have realized her days were numbered as he worked on these songs, it’s a fiction oft perpetuated—sometimes even in the pages of this august journal—that he wrote op. 121 in response to Clara’s death.

Moreover, it’s also a fiction (though one that fits the music) that he penned the Four Serious Songs realizing that he too was on his way out. The facts are otherwise. It wasn’t until late summer of 1896 that Brahms became aware of a decline in his health and repaired to Karlsbad to take the waters. By fall, he was back in Vienna, and though his health continued to deteriorate, he was well enough to attend Bruckner’s funeral on October 4. All of this is consistent with the advance of liver cancer, from which Brahms died on April 6, 1897. The disease is virtually symptomless until its later stages, so Brahms would not have known he was under a death sentence when he wrote the Four Serious Songs , and certainly not as early as 1894 when he wrote the op. 120 clarinet sonatas for Richard Mühlfeld. Absent modern chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Brahms lived approximately seven months from the onset of symptoms, which is actually slightly above average for untreated patients.

The texts for the Four Serious Songs are drawn from Biblical sources: Ecclesiastes 3:19-2, Ecclesiastes 4:1-3, Sirach 41:1-4, and Corinthians 13: 1-13. Unlike the comforting expressed in A German Requiem , these contemplations on death offer little in the way of consolation. “For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts” are hardly the parting words you would whisper to a loved one about to expire.

To those who have thrilled to performances of these songs by Kathleen Ferrier, Maureen Forrester, and even Janet Baker, let me say that I love these women’s voices in other contexts, but Brahms’s Four Serious Songs , in my opinion, want a deep, dark male voice, the deeper and darker the better. George London does it for me, as do Theo Adam and Robert Holl. And to that list, I would now add Andreas Schmidt. His voice and delivery of the words have that spine-tingling effect on me that makes this a special recording, and recommended for the Four Serious Songs alone, though the rest of the program is also very satisfying. Helmut Deutsch is superb in his role as accompanist, and the recording is excellent.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Zigeunerlieder, Op. 103 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Iris Vermillion (Mezzo Soprano), Helmut Deutsch (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1887-1888; Austria 
Songs (5), Op. 106 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Helmut Deutsch (Piano), Andreas Schmidt (Baritone)
Period: Romantic 
Written: ?1888; Austria 
Songs (5), Op. 107 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Juliane Banse (Soprano), Helmut Deutsch (Piano), Andreas Schmidt (Baritone)
Period: Romantic 
Serious Songs (4), Op. 121 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Helmut Deutsch (Piano), Andreas Schmidt (Baritone)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1896; Austria 

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