Graham Johnson’s latest Lieder project for Hyperion reaches its fourth volume. Brahms is of course a giant of the Romantic era but his songs and vocal works are rather less well known than much of his other music. There is so much to discover and enjoy in the beautiful, often elegiac melodies and characteristic piano writing.
In some of these recitals an opus number will be presented in its entirety: here it is the songs of Op 94, as well as the Vier ernste Gesänge of Op 121. The singer is the bass-baritone Robert Holl, acclaimed as simply one of the most profound artists of the genre and recently praised for the ‘unparalleled depth and complexity’ of his live performance (The Independent).
Brahms, like Schumann, but unlike Schubert with his much greater output, issued the majority of his songs in groups collected by opus number. There is a tendency in modern scholarship to suggest that he envisaged, or at least hoped for, performances of his songs in these original opus number groupings. Of course one cannot deny that some planning (though of a rather variable kind) went into the arrangement of these song bouquets for publication, but good order and cohesion in printed form (as in an anthology where poems are arranged to be discovered by the reader in a certain sequence), though pleasing to the intellect, do not automatically transfer to the world of the recital platform where one encounters a host of different practical problems, casting (male or female singer) and key-sequences (high or low voice) among them. There is nothing more meticulously planned in all song literature than the volume of 53 songs of Hugo Wolf’s Mörike Lieder—but we have no evidence to suggest that the composer, who had worked closely with the publishers to make this volume a feast for the eye, envisaged a performance of these songs in a single sitting, or on a single day. 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 this 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 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 songs of Op 94, as well as the Vier ernste Gesänge of Op 121.
Graham Johnson © 2012