What's your favourite love song? Fresh from their Gramophone Editor's Choice debut disc, Britain's most exciting young sextet returns with an album that's bursting with passion, rapture and the sheer magic and madness of falling in love. The Prince Consort presents a dazzling new collection of contemporary love songs by hugely popular pianist and composer Stephen Hough. They also bring new life to the classic Liebeslieder Walzer by Brahms. Fall in love all over again with the help of The Prince Consort's exquisitely seductive young voices and special guest appearances by Stephen Hough and Philip Fowke joining Alisdair Hogarth at the piano.
Brahms’ two sets of Liebeslieder waltzes are the perfect repertoire for an ensemble like The Prince Consort. The combination of part-songs and solo lieder suits this group down to the ground: a flexible band of top-class soloists who share an understanding of the joys and demands of consort singing. What’s more, they are young, bringing a freshness to the Liebeslieder Walzer Opus 52, and a poignancy to the Neue Liebeslieder Opus 65.
But The Prince Consort are also passionate explorers of new repertoire, and it’s the inclusion of Stephen Hough’s Other Love Songs (specially commissioned for the group by its artistic director and pianist Alisdair Hogarth) which makes this recording a unique proposition. Hough’s songs may be moving, challenging and exquisite vignettes in their own right, but they also make new sense of the Brahms, bridging what could be an uncomfortable gap between his two sets of Liebeslieder, and lending them a contemporary resonance that makes for a compelling listen. This is an exploration of love in its many forms: both multi-faceted and universal.
The two sets of Liebeslieder occupy an interesting and transitional period in Brahms’ life. The Opus 52 Liebeslieder Walzer (Love Song Waltzes) date from 1869, just a few months after his first major international hit, the German Requiem, was premiered at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. The Opus 65 Neue Liebeslieder (New Love Songs) were published six years later in 1875, just a few months before another major compositional breakthrough, the completion of his long-awaited First Symphony. At the age of 43, it opened up a whole new phase of his musical life. The 1860s had been turbulent years for Brahms, in which love and loss were intimately entwined. It was the death of his mother in 1865 which had prompted the outpourings of the German Requiem. And he spent much of the decade in unrequited love: first with Ottilie Hauer, with whom he played through many of Schubert’s songs in 1863, and then with Robert and Clara Schumann’s daughter, Julie. It is thought to be his feelings for Julie that infuse the Opus 52 Liebeslieder with their lightness, their swing. They are full of a certain reckless hopefulness which threatens to sweep us away.
Brahms wrote them in the summer of 1869 while he was staying near Julie and Clara in Baden-Baden. The poems he chose were by Georg Friedrich Daumer, one of his favourite poets – in all, he set more than fifty of Daumer’s verses to music. All eighteen poems come from Daumer’s collection Polydor, inspired by various folk tales and songs from Russia and Poland. (It’s worth remembering that the ‘waltz’ of these Liebeslieder is not the Viennese waltz we think of today; instead, in keeping with the folk motifs of Daumer’s texts, these are based on the Ländler, an Austro-German peasant dance in much slower triple time, the same kind that Haydn and Schubert had played with, and which later infused Mahler’s symphonies with nostalgia and irony.)
Brahms finished the Liebeslieder Walzer on the 8th August 1869. He performed a selection of them at a private gathering a fortnight later, sent them off to his publisher Simrock just four days after that, and by October they were in print. The following year, Brahms and Clara Schumann shared the keyboard as they accompanied a group of singer friends in the first public performance of the set, all eighteen waltzes in one go. They were a resounding success; Simrock went on to publish several versions of the waltzes, and Brahms himself orchestrated yet more.
Over the next five years he composed a further fifteen waltzes, again a mix of solo and ensemble songs, and Simrock published them as the Neue Liebeslieder Opus 65 in 1875. Both sets of waltzes were a publisher’s dream: intended for amateurs to dip into at home, with whatever forces they had to hand, they were flexible and technically manageable, yet hugely rewarding to perform.
But where Julie was concerned, things didn’t end well for Brahms. At the end of the summer of 1869, she married someone else. Channelling his sorrow once more into a musical masterpiece, he responded to the news with the Alto Rhapsody Opus 53. It was ostensibly a wedding present for Julie, but it was by no means a light-hearted one. And nor are the Neue Liebeslieder Opus 65 which followed as light-hearted as the first set of Liebeslieder. In fact, they are unmistakeably different in tone: darker, more unsettling. Could this be an inevitable consequence of the hardening of the heart on encountering loss? Of course, it’s a dangerous game trying to match up biographical detail with musical substance, but since this recording presents the two Liebeslieder sets together, knowing that the loss of Julie falls chronologically in the middle is one way of making sense of the dramatic difference between them.
Listening to the first set can feel like eating a little too much cake; by the time we get to the end of eighteen Ländler, we can feel a little full. It’s by no means a boring listen – Brahms bends the triple time of the waltz to his every need, creating a fascinating sequence of contrasting songs, some melancholy, some more violent, some full of swing – but the overriding feeling is positive, perhaps most of all in the best-loved song of the set, ‘Ein kleiner, hübscher Vogel nahm den Flug’ (No 6). But if you run the end of the first set straight into the beginning of the second, it jars immediately. The Neue Liebeslieder are much darker, somehow less coherent as a set, and so before we get to them as listeners we need to pause for thought, to get to grips with the corner about to be turned.
This is where Stephen Hough’s Other Love Songs come in. Hough gives us the opportunity to take time out from Brahms’ frothy waltzes, and consider love from a sequence of refreshingly different perspectives. Even in the 21st century we like to know where we are with things, and to package love into neat boxes. But these songs refuse to help us orient ourselves – they are constantly destabilising us, creeping up on us with the same knack of surprise as love itself.
They’re not a tribute to Brahms, but if Hough nods at all to the Liebeslieder it’s in the way he plays with duplets and triplets, cutting across each other to undermine our memory of the triple time of the Ländler. (This is particularly true of the opening song, ‘When I have passed’, which carries an actual echo of the last waltz of the Opus 52 set.) The very essence of these love songs is their otherness, and they hold some of the psychological shadow which is largely missing from the Opus 52 Liebeslieder Walzer.
Hough also bridges the gap between Brahms and the 21st century, taking us on a romp through the intervening years of music: from the exotica of Debussian orientalism (‘Kashmiri song’), to the cabaret world of the 1920s (in ‘The colour of his hair’, which carries various traces of Gilbert and Sullivan, Noël Coward, Kurt Weill and Stravinsky); via the vernacular comedy of the Madam (which reminds one of the Britten-Auden Cabaret Songs), and finally the delicacy of a ‘dona nobis pacem’ sung like a lullaby.
Hough’s love songs are bold, and they are also heavy with the experience of the kinds of love which don’t necessarily find easy expression in our world. And whether it’s simply the power of Hough’s work, or the fact that it’s there in the Brahms Neue Liebeslieder anyway, something of that heaviness seems to pervade the second set of waltzes which follows.
Propelled immediately into a violent shipwreck, the first two songs of Brahms’ Opus 65 Neue Liebeslieder run together without pause for breath. We are in very different territory to that of the Opus 52 Liebeslieder Walzer. Here are witches, black gypsy eyes, poisoned arrows, roses, nightingales and death. And here too are more solo songs than before, making it a slightly incoherent listen, like a split-personality song cycle.
Again, Brahms chose the poems of Daumer, but in these he cast his net wider: with a Turkish text (No 1), a translation of Hafiz (No 2), and Latvian/Lithuanian (No 3), Spanish (No 6), Sicilian (No 4), Serbian (No 12) and Malaysian (No 10) – inspired poems joining the Russian and Polish influences which dominated the Opus 52 waltzes. And yet, when he came to the last song in the set, Brahms set Daumer aside and turned instead to the father-figure of German Romanticism: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
Brahms is said to have described Goethe’s poems as: ‘So perfect in themselves that no music can improve them’. Nevertheless, it was Goethe he set in his Alto Rhapsody, and it’s Goethe who gets the last word in the Neue Liebeslieder. The final song, ‘Zum Schluß’, is a neat framing device, taking a step back from the obsessive, many-faceted qualities of love explored by Daumer (and indeed by Stephen Hough), and instead paying tribute to the muses who inspire it.
And yet, although it appears to celebrate and thank these muses, Brahms’ pay-off threatens to make a mockery of the sincere feelings that have come before. Is love real? Or are we merely puppets, struck dumb by Cupid’s invisible arrows, the playthings of the Gods? This may seem cruel, but it has a strong contemporary resonance, living as we do today with movie-myths like The Matrix which challenge us to question the very nature of our reality.
But it doesn’t have to make a mockery of love per se. Brahms, after all, experienced many of the many facets of love which Hough’s Other Love Songs explore. For divine or religious love, we have only to listen to his German Requiem or the Four Serious Songs (Vier ernste Gesänge, Opus 121) to experience something of the complexity and rapture of the human encounter with that which is greater than itself. For love of a lost parent, as per Claude McKay, once again witness the outpouring of grief at his mother’s death in the Requiem. And throughout his long life, Brahms loved several women romantically and platonically (Clara Schumann in particular), continuing his ardour well into old age. But despite these loves, he never married, remaining faithful instead to his greatest love of all: music.
Sara Mohr-Pietsch © 2011