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Track(s) taken from CDJ33124

Vier ernste Gesänge, Op 121

composer
May 1896; published in July 1896
author of text
No 1: Ecclesiastes 3: 19-22; No 2: Ecclesiastes 4: 1-3; No 3: Ecclesiasticus 41: 1-2; No 4: 1 Corinthians 13: 1-3, 12-13

Robert Holl (bass-baritone), Graham Johnson (piano)
Recording details: September 2010
All Saints' Church, East Finchley, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Julian Millard
Release date: September 2012
Total duration: 18 minutes 59 seconds

Cover artwork: Photograph by Benjamin Ealovega.
 
1
Denn es gehet dem Menschen  [4'50]
2
Ich wandte mich, und sahe an alle  [4'16]
3
O Tod, wie bitter bist du  [3'52]
4
Wenn ich mit Menschen- und mit Engelzungen redete  [6'01]

Reviews

'Through Holl's profound responses to the word-setting and to the songs' subtle shifts of emotion, he can focus the anguish of the listening lover in An die Nachtigall and powerfully tune into the more veiled melancholy of Schwermut … for the Four Serious Songs themselves, Holl brings a deep sense of empathetic humanity to the live, deeply felt and thoughtfully reasoned inner monologues which he makes of them' (BBC Music Magazine)

'In a superb sleevenote essay, pianist Graham Johnson argues that the Four Serious Songs' confrontations with mortality are neither religious nor consolatory, and Holl adds existential rage into the mix. The effect is awesome, but makes for difficult listening' (The Guardian)

'Holl's voice, reminiscent of Fischer-Dieskau's but rather more of a real bass … is rich, true and resonant. He uses it simply, without self-conscious artifice, and the result is some very beautiful singing. Johnson's accompaniment is always skilled and perceptive, never over-emphatic, and he makes the most of Brahms's complex modulations and occasional, poignant, almost Schumann-like postludes … Holl's voice and manner suit these songs extremely well and his performance of them is beautifully judged and very moving. This disc, while the whole recital has notable integrity and quality, would be worth having for these last songs alone' (International Record Review)

'Robert Holl has a mellifluous voice and a sensitive manner, bringing refinement, vividness and a wide dynamic range to Hyperion’s fourth volume of Brahms’s songs. Pianist Graham Johnson is not only a perceptive accompanist, but a fine writer—he has penned an extensive booklet note, a masterpiece in itself that includes texts and translations. Together, he and Holl are magnificent and magnetic, and the sound quality here is exemplary' (Time Out)
This set of songs, Brahms’s last, is seldom heard in recital as anything other than a complete opus, although the third song, by far the most famous, is sometimes performed separately. When writing this music (completed in May 1896) the composer was already suffering from liver cancer—it was a painful illness that would eventually kill him eleven months later. Brahms was sixty-three on 7 May and he claimed that he regarded the songs as a birthday present to himself; with deliberate irony he called them ‘Schnaderhüpfl’, a genre of popular harvest ditty from Bavaria or Austria. Eric Sams observes that even this joke was partly serious, that the composer was ‘contemplating his own lifetime’s harvest of accomplishment’. The death of Clara Schumann, also in May 1896, a heartbreaking loss, is undoubtedly part of the genesis of this dark and powerful work for the end of an era, the end of Clara’s life, and premonitions of the end of the composer’s.

Brahms was an atheist, sometimes inclined to borderline agnosticism, but his knowledge of the highways and byways of the Bible was unparalleled among song composers. With great resourcefulness he assembled four biblical texts reflecting his own beliefs and lack of them: love in its Christian sense is of paramount importance in life, work is ennobling and necessary for the dignity of the spirit, and extinction and non-existence are all that are to be found the other side of the grave. Nevertheless, a fear of blasphemy seems to have remained with Brahms, perhaps a residue of his upbringing; he apparently doubted at first whether such ‘godless’ songs could be published at all and took various opinions on the matter. He seems to have half-expected the sky to fall on his head, or at the very least a slew of critical attacks. Relatively few people, however, were subtle enough to see the way in which the composer had subverted the Bible to write songs that he himself described as ‘anti-dogmatic, also in part unbelieving’; most listeners simply noted where the texts came from and reasoned that the songs were unimpeachably religious. This has resulted in thousands of performances in memorial services throughout the world as congregations listen respectfully to this music, convinced that Brahms must have been a very godly man; in point of fact he was, but not in a way to appeal to conventional Christians. This seems entirely typical of the composer’s relationship to the world—he was never exactly what people thought him to be. The songs, and his reasons for setting them, are often beset with obfuscations whereby the superficial are denied access to the composer’s inner world. The Vier ernste Gesänge, ‘pitiless in word and tone’ according to Julius Otto Grimm, are certainly not the religious effusions they first appear to be (and here German texts have long worked wonders in suppressing any potential religious disquiet in English-speaking lands). Honesty, however, is a Christian virtue and here Brahms scores; these songs are the culmination of a lifetime where he has attempted to speak the truth as he sees and understands it.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 2012

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