Following the iconic series of the complete songs of Schubert and Schumann, Graham Johnson further demonstrates the phenomenal depth of his knowledge in the expert programming of this recital. Each disc in the series represents a different journey through the repertoire, and thus through Brahms’s life. This new volume is sensitively balanced, the opening and closing folksong transcriptions possessing beguiling charm and the five songs of Op 49 being performed in their entirety.
Hyperion is thrilled to welcome the young German tenor Simon Bode to the label. At home in the opera house and the recital hall, Bode possesses a controlled voice of great beauty, and gives performances of immediacy and conviction. Johnson, as accompanist, is immaculate and his usual scholarly notes are of course included.
Printed poetry collections are as lovingly assembled as an opus of a composer’s varied settings, but this does not mean the poems therein are designed to be read aloud from cover to cover: the compiler of these volumes, whether or not the poet himself, would expect items to be selected by the reader according to taste or need. The anthology (or indeed opus number) might be likened to a well-ordered jewel case from which precious items may be extracted for use, depending on the occasion: the wearing in public of every item therein on a single occasion would be both impractical and vulgar. There is little evidence, especially from concert practice of the time (where items from the Schubert and Schumann cycles were often ruthlessly excerpted), that Brahms’s publications were conceived within a spirit of cyclic unity that called for an integral performance of the entire group.
There is a modern tendency to see a famous cycle like Winterreise as the nineteenth-century norm to which all other groups of songs should be made to conform, and this ‘search for cycles’ has become something of an obsession in present-day musicology, a means of using the popularity of Schubert’s and Schumann’s genuine cycles as an excuse to pretend that there are similarly cohesive works in the repertoire waiting to be rescued, or restored to the unified shape the composer had intended for them all along. It is perhaps a symptom of our ‘bigger is better’ society that solitary songs, exquisite miniatures, are thought to be more significant if they form a part of something bigger. If this is true, it represents an ongoing challenge to the planners of programmes whose efforts can yield far better and more imaginative results when allowed to range over a broader canvas than that of a single opus number where all sorts of practical considerations, including commercial ones, had restricted the composer’s choices.
Each disc of the Hyperion edition takes a journey through Brahms’s career. The songs are not quite presented in chronological order (Brahms had a way of including earlier songs in later opus numbers) but they do appear here more or less in the order that the songs were presented to the world. Each recital represents a different journey through the repertoire (and thus through Brahms’s life). In a number of these Hyperion recitals an opus number will be presented in its entirety. In the case of this disc it is the five songs of Op 49. In this series the folksongs of 1894 will be shared between all the singers. In a letter to Marie Scherer of 20 October 1894 we learn of Brahms’s reaction to an evening (arranged by the well-meaning Amalie Joachim) where an entire occasion was given over to these Volkslieder: ‘I do not think it a happy idea to spend a whole evening singing nothing but these folksongs. A few introduced among other (serious and sober!) songs might be enjoyable and refreshing.’ In this series this is exactly what will happen. In Volumes 1 and 2 the folksongs appeared at the end of each disc; in the present volume three songs are presented at the beginning of the programme, and three at the end.
Graham Johnson © 2011