Songlives: Johannes Brahms

Taking us along these autobiographical paths were bass-baritone Hanno
M¸ller-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.

M¸ller-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 M¸ller-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
‹berl‰ufer’ (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 ‘Dafl mein Schatz so falsch kˆnnt’
sein’ (that my darling could be so false) a delicate enhancement of ‘so
falsch kˆnnt’ neatly conveyed the protagonist’s anguish.

In this part of the programme, Murray and M¸ller-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. M¸ller-Brachmann’s ‘St‰ndchen’ (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 ƒolsharfe’ 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

M¸ller-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 Kˆnigin’ (How blissful, my queen) adopted a more relaxed,
intimate air, before flourishing with the enraptured lines, ‘Ach, ¸ber alles
was da bl¸ht,/ 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 schˆne 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), M¸ller-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

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 Tr‰ne/ Bebt mir heifler
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 ‘weifl im reinen Schnee’ (white in
pure snow) and the well-proportioned emphasis on ‘Gl¸ck 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
gr¸n’ 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 ‘Schˆn war, das ich dir weihte’ (Fair was my gift to you) thoughtfully
supported the vocal line. Murray’s rising phrase, ‘S¸fl war der Laute
Ton’ (sweet was the sound of the lute), was charmingly beautiful.

M¸ller-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 T¸r 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 w¸nsch 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 Ges‰nge
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 M¸ller-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 M¸ller-Brachmann bass-baritone,
Malcolm Martineau, piano. Wigmore Hall,
LondonMonday 13th January 2014.

The early years: ‘Heimkehr’, ‘In der Fremde’, ‘Der
‹berl‰ufer’, ‘Liebestreu’

New Paths: ‘St‰ndchen’, ‘An eine ƒolsharfe’, ‘Der Gang
zum Liebchen’

First Maturity: ‘Wehe, so willst du mich wieder’, ‘Wie bist du,
meine Kˆnigin’, ‘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 gr¸n’

The last twenty years: ‘Therese’, ‘Mit vierzig Jahren’,
‘Sapphische Ode’, ‘Kein Haus, keine Heimat’, ‘Schˆn war, das ich dir
weihte’, ‘Auf dem Kirchhofe’, ‘M‰ddchenlied’, ‘Wie komm’ ich den
zur T¸r herein’, ‘So w¸nsch’ ich ihr ein’gute Nacht’,

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

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

image_description=Ann Murray, DBE [Photo by Sian Trenberth]
product_title=Songlives: Johannes Brahms
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Ann Murray, DBE [Photo by Sian Trenberth]