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Brahms & Schumann: Lieder

Ann Murray (mezzo-soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
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Recording details: October 2013
Crear Studio, Argyll, Scotland
Produced by Philip Hobbs
Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Release date: February 2015
Total duration: 64 minutes 12 seconds

Cover artwork: Roses (1915) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919)
Musée des Beaux-Arts et d'Archéologie, Besançon, France / Bridgeman Art Library, London
 

This is Ann Murray's first solo album in over a decade, and will be her final Lieder recording—a fitting way to draw her long and distinguished recording career to a close. Still a regular fixture on the opera circuit, Ann's voice remains impressive. Following a Brahms recital at Wigmore Hall earlier this year, The Times stated: ‘Her still-penetrating mezzo was the highlight of the evening. Murray really sings through Brahms's cantabile lines while losing nothing in theatrical awareness.'

It is difficult to imagine a singer who inspires greater affection and admiration than Ann Murray DBE. With Malcolm Martineau at the piano, this beautifully balanced programme sees Ann perform some of her favourite works by Schumann and Brahms. The recording also features Benjamin Appl (baritone), John Mark Ainsley (tenor), Johnny Langridge (tenor & Ann's son) and Hester Dickson (piano & Malcolm's mother).

A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.

Reviews

'In a fine performance, as here, [Schumann’s final songs'] almost minimalistic starkness can be uncommonly moving … Ann Murray sings with still-steady tone, sensitive phrasing and a quiet, concentrated intensity' (Gramophone)» More

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In September 1853, the young Johannes Brahms, encouraged by friends with whom he was visiting, went to Düsseldorf at the end of September to meet Robert Schumann. ‘Visit from Brahms, a genius,’ we read in Schumann’s diary for that day, and a wonderful month for the younger man followed, in which he saw Robert and his wife Clara almost every day. Schumann’s article ‘Neue Bahnen’ (‘New paths’) followed in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik on 28 October: in it he announced to the world the appearance of a new and great musician. A few months later, in February 1854, tragedy struck when Schumann was taken to the sanatorium at Endenich near Bonn, never to leave; he died there in July 1856. From the time of that first meeting, Brahms’s fate was to be intertwined with the Schumanns; in a complex and profound fashion, Brahms and Clara would love and care about each other for the remaining 40 years of their lives. Given this background, it seems only fitting that Schumann’s and Brahms’s songs should share this recording.

With only two exceptions, the Schumann songs and duets featured here are in his ‘late style’ of the late 1840s and early 1850s, not the famous ‘miracle year’ of 1840 in which he composed Dichterliebe and so many other masterpieces of song. By this time, Schumann had met Richard Wagner and, under his influence, began to experiment with the subversion of clear-cut cadences, declamatory vocal writing, considerable chromaticism and flexible, irregular phrasing. The Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart is Schumann’s last set of songs for solo voice, and it treats a subject ‘in the air’ at the time, for example, in Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Abbot (1820), set at Loch Leven Castle, where Mary was imprisoned in 1567–8. Clara was fond of royal tragedies and sentimental verse; she entered the poems, which she and Robert probably found in the Kölnische Zeitung for 11 and 17 November 1852, into their shared ‘Copies of Poems for Setting’, and Robert’s cycle was a gift to her, and very much tailored to her taste. The poems Gisbert Freiherr von Vincke translated into German were not all by the tragic queen, but the Schumanns thought they were. The result is a true song cycle, tonally unified and with similar ‘head motives’ at the beginning of songs 2–5. The poems trace the following episodes of Mary I of Scotland’s life:

‘Abschied von Frankreich’: in 1561, Mary left France after 13 years spent there in the wake of her husband François II’s death in December 1560.
‘Nach der Geburt ihres Sohnes’: 1566 saw the birth of her son James (James VI of Scotland from 1567, after an uprising against Mary, and James I of England and Ireland from 1603 until his death in 1625), fruit of her unhappy marriage to her first cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, who was found murdered in his garden in 1567.
‘An die Königin Elisabeth’: it is now perhaps c1568, and there have been momentous events. Mary’s marriage to James Hepburn, Fourth Earl of Bothwell, who was tried and acquitted of murdering Darnley; Mary’s imprisonment at Loch Leven; Bothwell’s exile; Mary’s escape from Loch Leven and flight south, where she was recaptured. She wanted her first cousin once removed, Queen Elizabeth I of England, to help her regain her throne, but because Mary had previously claimed Elizabeth’s throne and was considered the rightful heir by English Catholics, Elizabeth refused to release her from confinement.
‘Abschied von der Welt’: in 1586 Mary was put on trial for treason, after Elizabeth’s secretary Sir Francis Walsingham read in Mary’s private letters of her sanctioning the attempted assassination of Elizabeth.
‘Gebet’: the evening of 7 February 1587, and Mary has been told she is to be beheaded the next morning at Fotheringhay Castle.

In the first song, ‘Abschied von Frankreich’, waves rise and fall in the piano, joined to a vocal line poised between lyric song and prose-like declamation. In the last ‘Ade’, we hear sad finality but the tiny postlude seems to portray the queen still looking back at a country she did not want to leave. ‘Nach der Geburt’ is akin to a chorale, a prayer infused with muted intensity (for example, the rising chromatic contour and octave drop at the words ‘die Geburt des hier Gebornen’, repeated at ‘was geschieht in seinem Namen’). When Schumann sets Mary’s wish that her son’s race should long rule in this kingdom, the word ‘noch’ is sustained over the barline as the harmony shifts to an unstable chord, her uncertainty about the future thus underscored. Vincke, a Shakespeare translator, converted ‘An die Königin Elisabeth’ into Shakespearean iambic pentameters and sonnet form, and Schumann in his turn fashions dramatic declamation to minimal accompaniment. ‘Abschied von der Welt’ is also a sonnet in iambic pentameters, one that Schumann turns into a stylized funeral march-cum-lied, the accompaniment minimal and shot through with repetitions of the initial ‘falling figure’ in the first measure. The last song, ‘Gebet’, is another prayer in chorale texture, its quiet intensity remarkable; we hear the vocal register ascend by degrees throughout the first half of the song in increasing tension. As she prays to Christ, ‘Nun rette Du mich’ (‘and save me’) at the end, it is the piano that must complete the cadence to a sorrowful E minor, the tragedy forecast from the beginning of the cycle.

Schumann had set only a few poems by Goethe before 1849, the centenary of the poet’s birth and the inspiration for Op 98a; the composer attended a series of conferences about a Goethe celebration in Dresden in July and August of that year. The texts he chose here come from Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (‘Wilhelm Meister’s apprenticeship’), a Bildungsroman in which a young man grows to maturity and outgrows his illusions at considerable cost to those around him. The novel is punctuated by inset-songs, lyric poems sung by its characters, and was thus an open invitation to a long list of composers. The characters include the mysterious Harper, whose tragic history we learn only at the end, and the child Mignon. The Harper, son of the eccentric Marquis Cipriani in Italy, was raised apart from his younger sister Sperata (her name derived from ‘speranza’, or ‘hope’); ignorant of her existence, he meets her as a young man, they fall in love, and she bears him a child: Mignon. On the discovery that they are brother and sister, Sperata dies, and the Harper wanders hither and yon, singing of his sorrow and guilt.

His songs make manifest both art’s power over death and its futility in the face of death, its conversion of the world into ordered language and its creator’s inability to cope with tragic reality. His daughter (neither one knows they are related) was kidnapped when very young, then rescued from her harsh life in an acrobatic troupe by Wilhelm Meister, with whom she falls in love. She does not know her age (‘Nobody has counted’, she says in her broken German), she dresses in boy’s clothes, and she speaks of herself in the third person except in her songs. She symbolizes humanity’s two natures, earthly and spiritual, male and female, and she has prophetic powers. Her life is governed by ‘Sehnsucht’ (‘longing’), a form of Romantic desire that manifests itself as affliction; in song, she reaches out for the lost and irretrievable ideal. In ‘Kennst du das Land’, from the start of Book III of the novel, she remembers the marble villa of her childhood, the citrus groves and sunny skies of Italy, and the mist-wreathed mountain paths. Schumann had earlier placed this song at the end of his Liederalbum für die Jugend—Mignon is, after all, a child in early adolescence—and then again in Op 98a, but in both contexts, her music is no longer childish. This is Wagner-inflected passion but with familiar Schumann fingerprints, such as the continuous melody provided by the piano’s filling in every interstice between stanzas.

Schubert’s Harper is a tenor, but Schumann and Hugo Wolf both imagined him as a baritone or bass. The ‘Ballade des Harfners’ is simultaneously a ballad about a minstrel performing for a king and his royal court and a performance by the Harper for Wilhelm Meister and his acting company. From the sweeping, harp-like chords to the ‘freely declamatory’ and demanding vocal part, this is a fusion of dramatic scena and song. The king, pleased by the performance, attempts to give the minstrel a gold chain (here Schumann creates linked figures in the piano, quite chain-like). The minstrel rejects material wealth and asks for wine instead, declaring that ‘I sing as the bird sings’—the occasion for a moment of pure song. (Schumann was using a corrupt 1840 Paris edition of Goethe’s novel, so we find the words ‘in reinem Glase’ instead of the correct ‘in purem Golde’.)

In Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, ‘Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt’ is presented as Wilhelm’s incomplete transcription of a duet sung by the Harper and Mignon; in music, there are both duet versions, Schubert’s being the most famous, and solo versions for Mignon alone, as here. Reflecting Mignon’s obsession with longing, Schumann ends every phrase of the vocal line with appoggiaturas, long a device by which to express desire in music. While the composer repeats most of the short poem, the cry ‘My head reels, my body blazes’ (the language of ‘Eingeweide’ or ‘bowels’ is Old Testament in flavour) appears only once, to a massive Neapolitan chord.

‘Wer nie sein Brot’ is the Harper’s searing indictment of the gods who lead us into transgression and then abandon us to our guilt. In Schumann’s version, we twice hear bitter prolongation and emphasis of the word ‘wer’—those more fortunate mortals who have never wept all night in their beds—and then mammoth sweeping chords (he is a harpist, after all) to accompany his furious characterization of the gods. For the final assertion that all sin is punished on earth, the arpeggiations grow hushed, and the last two words are separated and sunk deep in the bass. ‘On earth’, in life: this is the ultimate horror. The final forte chord in the piano is the last flare-up of anger.

‘Heiß mich nicht reden’ is introduced in offhand manner in Goethe’s Book V Chapter 6 as ‘a poem Mignon had recited once or twice with great expressiveness’. The vow of which she sings is one she made to the Virgin Mary, who promised her protection as she was being kidnapped: she would never tell her story and would live and die in expectation of divine intervention. This is Schumann at his most dramatic: when Mignon first sings of the ‘appointed time’ at which the darkness of her existence will be replaced by light, we hear in the right hand the foreshadowing of the massive chimes rung in the piano to herald ‘nur ein Gott’ (‘only a god’) to release her from her vow.

The late eighteenth century made a distinction between ‘Einsamkeit’ (‘solitude’, which could be positive or negative) and being ‘allein’ (‘alone’), the latter usually a sad or even pathological state. In ‘Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt’, the Harper declares that such as he who surrender to solitude are soon left alone by others; he then laments that only in the grave will a quasi-anthropomorphized Torment finally leave him. We hear the Harper’s madness in the radical tonal instability of this song, which begins in minor-mode torment and ends with the piano’s final cadence in A flat major, as if in hope of future peace.

‘Singet nicht in Trauertönen’ belongs in the novel to Philine, a lively, flirtatious actress in Wilhelm’s troupe who advises Wilhelm and his assistant Serlo to quit theorizing about their performance of Hamlet and get on with it, then sings this song. Her staccato vivacity and frank celebration of sensual love add a welcome lighter touch in the midst of the Harper’s and Mignon’s darker, deeper destinies.

In stark contrast to Philine’s vitality is the Harper’s ‘An die Türen will ich schleichen’, his prophecy of a future in which he will beg for his bread. In a state of alienation beyond remedy, he will wonder why people weep a single tear (they will not spare more for such as he) at the sight of him. All expansiveness gone, this song is the epitome of terse tragedy that barely knows itself to be tragic, the repeated semiquaver figures in the piano no longer a sweeping harp gesture but a listless shuffle. The Picardy 3rd cadence (a major chord at the close of a work in minor mode) at the end—an antique, Baroque device—closes off the bleak vision with a distinctive, quiet dignity.

‘So laßt mich scheinen’ comes from Book VIII Chapter 2, when Wilhelm’s eventual bride Natalie tells him about a birthday party at which Mignon played the part of an angel. Refusing to take off her costume, she sings this song foretelling her transcendence after death. For the ‘brief repose’ in the sure and strong house of the grave, Schumann has the voice and bass line duet with one another in close embrace of an unmoving inner ostinato, followed by a twofold explosion of revelation and transfiguration: an electric moment in this final song of the set. Here, finally, the G minor tragic moods of ‘Kennst du das Land’ and ‘Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt’ become apotheosis in G major.

‘Ich denke Dein’ also belongs to Schumann’s musical celebration of Goethe at the mid-century mark. The composer, who knew Schubert’s immortal 1815 setting ‘Nähe des Geliebten’, D162, chose duet texture rather than solo song, gave his work a different title, and abjured any piano introduction at all (Schubert’s setting begins with one of his most beautiful introductions), surely in part to minimize the inevitable comparisons. The two lovers sing as if glued together in perfect passion while the piano accompaniment spins a continuous melody throughout. In a duet that alternates between minor mode and its relative major, Schumann creates moments of particular beauty: when the lovers listen to the quiet meadow, rapt attention rendered in harmony, and at the end, when the sun sinks and the stars begin to shine.

The historical links between Spanish and German literature from the Middle Ages onward meant that German Romantics often favoured Spain as a destination for exotic-erotic journeys of the imagination, a practice exemplified in the popular poet Emanuel Geibel’s Volkslieder und Romanzen der Spanier (1843). In his Spanisches Liebespiel, Op 74, and his Spanische Liebeslieder, Op 138, both to texts drawn from Geibel, Schumann does something new by creating multi-number works in which the soprano, alto, tenor and bass singers are deployed in varying combinations (solos, duets, quartets, even piano duets). ‘Hoch, hoch sind die Berge’ (originally part of Op 74, but discarded after a disappointing first performance and then included in Op 138) is a wistful specimen of the folk-like art song, a work that evokes folkloric style but is actually the product of consummate artistry. The plangent details of this sad song sung to her mother by a daughter whose lover has gone away into the mountains (abandonment? death?) include the horn-call figure at the beginning; the overlapping gestures in the piano for the girl’s ‘five fingers’ beckoning her lover back as he departs; and, most heart-rending of all, the echo of the first vocal phrase as the piano’s last word. We can almost see her still looking upwards.

Count Anton Alexander von Auersperg, better known by his pen-name Anastasius Grün, was a poet and politician in Carniola, and famous in his day for his versified attacks on the Metternich regime in Spaziergänge eines Wiener Poeten (1831). Schumann, despite his leftist political tendencies, chose not the political verse but the tender depiction of generational love in ‘Familien-Gemälde’. In mirrored sweetness, a young couple and their loving grandparents contemplate one another. In 1840, Robert’s hopes for a loving family life were high indeed; the ticking clock and Time’s passage, recorded in the staccato beats of the ‘leisen Schrittes die Zeit’, were meant to lead to a future such as this one. It is an epitome of sadness that Robert and Clara were denied this vision (the hope of all lovers) by disease and death.

Schumann was fond of the verse of Friedrich Rückert, well known for his patriotic poems in the War of Liberation against Napoleon’s armies and as an Orientalist and prolific poet. Robert and Clara chose 12 poems from the volume Liebesfrühling to set to music in a shared opus that ends with the duet ‘So wahr die Sonne scheinet’. As in ‘Ich denke Dein’, loving unanimity is expressed here by the perfect rhythmic accord of the two singers. None of the other Liebesfrühling songs are in this manner, the Innigkeit (‘intimacy’, ‘inwardness’) here the perfect conclusion to the work.

The duet ‘Ich bin dein Baum’ comes from the Minnespiel, Op 101, a group of eight Rückert settings composed after the failed May 1849 revolution in Dresden, where the Schumanns were living at the time. For this hymn to married love, Schumann demonstrates yet again the impact of Bach-influenced free counterpoint on his music.

Johannes Brahms began his compositional life with songs and works for piano, and he would never abandon songwriting, whatever his ambitions in large instrumental forms. ‘Dein blaues Auge’ is one of his many settings of poetry by Klaus Groth, whose family had ties to Brahms’s father’s family and who was famous in his time for verse in plattdeutsch dialect. This poem from Quickborn—Volksleben in plattdeutschen Gedichten Ditmarscher Mundart (1852) is in the voice of a man we might colloquially describe as ‘on the rebound’; burned by one pair of eyes whose scorn/rejection/passion still pains him, he gazes into the limpid, healing eyes of another woman. It is no wonder that Brahms’s persona places the ‘Nachgefühl’, the painful aftermath, briefly in a darker tonal realm or that touches of that darkness are evident elsewhere in the song (including the beginning and end), even as he asserts a new-found peace.

The poet of Brahms’s ‘Junge Lieder I’ was Felix Schumann, Schumann’s youngest child, conceived not long before Robert’s descent into insanity, and Brahms’s godson. Felix, who would die of tuberculosis at the age of 25, turned to poetry when bad health made a musical career impossible. Brahms’s setting was a Christmas Eve gift to Clara; in the letter accompanying his gift, Brahms told Clara that he had recalled her husband’s ‘Schöne Fremde’ (the sixth song of the Eichendorff Liederkreis, Op 39) when he read Felix’s verses, and he quotes it at the beginning of his own masterpiece. Here, an ardent swain proclaims that his love is as green as the lilac bush and as fair as the sun shining upon it.

A girl sings of her pride in her blacksmith-lover in ‘Der Schmied’; it is one of Brahms’s most popular songs, and with reason. The vocal line swings back and forth in imitation of the man’s swinging hammer, while the rhythmic pattern in the accompaniment gives us both the initial blow and the immediate rebound. In two short strophes, Brahms conveys enormous energy and rustic vitality.

The late masterpiece ‘Ständchen’ catches folkloric-Germanic nostalgia in a nutshell: moonlight over the mountains, a fountain plashing in the gardens, and three blond students serenading a beloved who whispers ‘Remember me’ in her dreams. Brahms responds by roving lightly between various transient tonalities, as if from one beautiful place to another; appropriately enough for a song about student life and loves, the song is related in some of its procedures to the Academic Festival Overture.

‘Wir wandelten’ is the last of Brahms’s 19 solo songs on texts by Georg Friedrich Daumer, whose mildly erotic verse in the collection Polydora, ein weltpoetisches Liederbuch (1855) offended some of the composer’s more prudish friends. Here, the persona muses on what he and his beloved are thinking when they walk silently together, and Brahms, taking his cue from the persona’s assertion in the second and third verses of beautiful thoughts, shifts to a beautifully removed tonal realm (the flat submediant, enharmonically notated in sharps as a further index of distance) and then rings treble chimes in the piano.

In ‘Wie Melodien’, the poet Klaus Groth fashions a poem about the power of poetry, asserting that evanescent melodies in the mind retain something of their power to move the heart when turned into verse. Brahms then comes along and demonstrates that when music is allied to those words, their emotional intensity is heightened still further. Each of the three stanzas begins in the same way, with an expansive melody against harp-like arpeggiations in the piano and the beautifully expressive touch of darkness near the end of the first phrase when the Neapolitan (flatted 2nd) harmony sounds, but ends differently (in the dominant for verse 1, melancholy relative minor for the feelings that disappear like mist and wind in mere words in verse 2, and the tonic key at the close of the song). The plagal or ‘Amen’ cadence that concludes the piano postlude—a Brahmsian fingerprint—tells us how reverentially Brahms viewed the merger of poetry, music and feeling in song.

Brahms first met the pretty young singer Bertha Porubszky in 1859 in Hamburg, where he was conducting the women’s chorus. Her performance of a Ländler-Lied, ‘Du moanst wohl, du glabst wohl’, by Alexander Baumann (a friend of Brahms’s) so impressed the composer that its melody sounds in the piano accompaniment to the famous ‘Wiegenlied’. Bertha had married an industrialist named Arthur Faber, and this song was composed for the birth of their second child in 1868. ‘While she is singing Hans to sleep, a love song is being sung to her’, Brahms wrote to her husband, adding that ‘My song is suitable for either boys or girls, so you need not order a new one each time’.

Susan Youens © 2014

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