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Alastair Miles is internationally recognized as one of the world’s leading basses, appearing regularly with acclaimed opera companies such as WNO, Glyndebourne, ENO and the Royal Opera, as well as with conductors such as Giulini, Harnoncourt, Muti, Rattle, Gergiev, Gardiner, Norrington, Davis and Dohnányi. On this new recording he explores some gems of the Lieder repertoire from Hugo Wolf and Johannes Brahms, ably accompanied by pianist Marie-Nöelle Kendall.
Two towering settings by Wolf of poems by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) provide the philosophical underpinning for the rest of the disc. Both concern themselves with man’s relationship with posterity, eternity, and the gods. In Prometheus [Track 1], the eponymous demigod rejects the gods as pathetic and redundant scroungers. As yet unbound, Prometheus exults in his own achievements, declaring that he will fashion men in his own image, to despise the gods as he does. These testosterone-driven 174 bars threaten to overwhelm the limits of the genre with their tumult. Yet, Wolf decided that the bitter triumph of this poem would not be a fitting close to his Goethe songbook. Instead he chose to end his fifty-one settings with Grenzen der Menschheit [Track 2]. Written just a week after Prometheus, this song presents a much humbler protagonist who reminds us that Man, with his brief and transient life, is fundamentally weak and constantly buffeted by the fates. Hence he should not venture to measure himself against the gods.
These conflicting states of self-belief and selfdoubt were very familiar to Wolf. He was no coward; setting such a large number of poems by Goethe—without a doubt the most significant poet of the century—was itself an act of bravado. Goethe’s verses had been set to music countless times, most famously in Wolf’s century by his fellow-Viennese Franz Schubert, and Wolf was well aware that his settings would be compared with those of his immortal predecessor. As he said to his friend Gustav Schur: ‘I am threatened with Schubert, but I can’t shut up simply because a genius lived before me and wrote wonderful music.’
Wolf acknowledged the challenge when he opened his Goethe songbook with ten settings of poems from Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, which Schubert had set several times. The ballad Der Sänger [Track 3] presents an idealized minstrel figure who rejects all material reward for his art, happy to serve music for its own sake and to ‘sing as the birds sing’. The pathos of this song is twofold. It is sung by the Harper, possibly the novel’s most damaged character, who ekes out his existence on the fringe of society and ends up committing suicide. And Wolf’s own life involved constant financial struggle, unhappy love, depression, and ultimately, syphilitic insanity and early death before his forty-third birthday. Singing as the birds sing could not have been more distant an ideal.
In 1879, Wolf approached the most famous composer in the city of Vienna, Johannes Brahms, for an opinion of his composition. The meeting was not a success; Brahms’s recommendation to the nineteen-year-old Wolf was a course in counterpoint! Thereafter, Wolf wrote increasingly vitriolic reviews of Brahms’s music, culminating in 1890 with his famous declaration (paraphrasing Nietzsche) that ‘Brahms’s creativity is the melancholy of impotence’. Brahms paid no heed to the young critic. He was at the peak of his profession, an acknowledged master in all genres apart from opera, lionized in his adopted city and beyond.
Despite Brahms’s success with larger genres, song composition had a special significance for him. Some of his songs were composed with friends in mind, and given as gifts, and a surprising number were kept deliberately within technical reach of the many amateur singers and pianists of his social circle. O wüsst ich doch den Weg zurück [Track 4], published in 1874, is of this type; yet, despite its transparent arpeggiated accompaniment, it uses sophisticated, searching harmonies to explore the nostalgic and elusive relationship between man and his childhood. The poem was written by Brahms’s dear friend and fellow-North German Klaus Groth (1819-1899), whose poetry was a cherished link to home for the self-exiled composer. Another North German, Detlev von Liliencron (1844-1909), was the author of the late setting Auf dem Kirchhofe [Track 5]. This dramatic song is the first on this disc explicitly to offer the idea of death as release, consolation or healing. Feldeinsamkeit [Track 6] elaborates this theme in the most sublime incarnation. Written by another North German, Hermann Allmers (1821-1902), the poem describes the poet lying dreaming in a field. For this poet, death offers the bliss of freedom from time. Ironically, Allmers himself was not pleased with Brahms’s setting, feeling it was not folk-like enough. In fact, Brahms’s gloriously dignified setting picks up on the profounder undertones of the lyric.
Death is presented in a different guise in Verrat [Track 7], a rare ballad in Brahms’s oeuvre. Again set in the North German landscape of heath and sea, it tells the tale of a man who, in revenge for his beloved’s infidelity, slays her lover. The music bears a striking resemblance to the opening of another night setting, Brahms’s Von ewiger Liebe Op 43 No 1, in which a girl swears her eternal fidelity to her beloved. It is as though Verrat reveals that fidelity to be hollow and transient, like so much else in this world. The poem is by Karl Lemcke (1831-1913), an art historian whose patriotic poetry Brahms had set in the 1860s. Although Lemcke is largely forgotten now, his poem superbly sketches the events of this night of horror, matched by Brahms’s dark, louring setting.
Verrat also links the idea of death with love; but while Lemcke’s protagonist is prepared to kill for love, the poet of the next song, Nicht mehr zu dir zu gehen [Track 8], is likely to die of it. This is the first of Brahms’s many settings of the poetry of Georg Friedrich Daumer (1800-1875), in this case, a translation of a Moldavian poem. Set in the same sepulchral D minor which opens Brahms’s Op 121, this is a wrenching exploration of sexual despair, in which the poet tells his beloved that his very life hinges on her favour.
The remaining songs on the disc shift the focus away from death to its corollary, the afterlife. They also bring together the very last songs Wolf and Brahms wrote, and it is in this music that some fundamental affinities between the two composers emerge. Wolf’s three Drei Gedichte von Michelangelo and Brahms’s Vier ernste Gesänge Op 121 were written less than a year apart, in 1896–7. Brahms, twenty-seven years older than Wolf and already gravely ill with the liver cancer that had killed his father, died a week after Wolf’s Michelangelo-Lieder were completed in April 1897. In September of the same year, Wolf succumbed to insanity; he would be dead six years later. Both ended their song-writing lives not with celebration, but with reflection.
The Michelangelo-Lieder are Wolf’s greatest meditation on man’s relationship to posterity and time. The vast multi-talent of Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564), sculptor, painter, architect and poet, places him in the same category as Goethe. On this disc, the bare D minor octaves of Brahms’s Nicht mehr zu dir zu gehen provide a fitting prelude to Wolf’s first Michelangelo setting Wohl denk’ ich oft [Track 9]. This song moves from a gloomy opening G minor to an exultant G major as the poet reflects on his renown—a renown he has gained since he came to love an unnamed person. This figure is possibly God, but may also be an idealized woman who inspires him to greatness.
But as with Prometheus and Grenzen der Menschheit, the singer’s triumph is immediately undermined by the following song, Alles endet, was entstehet [Track 10]. Composed just two days later, this song contains no mention of love or fame, only the bleak recognition that everything which exists will pass away. The text even recalls Prometheus, mentioning the human states of ‘thinking, speaking, pain and joy’; in Prometheus, the race of man will ‘suffer, weep, have pleasure and delight’—empty acts, surely, in the face of man’s transience. Alles endet also notably makes use of the three-part song form so beloved of Brahms.
In the following week or so, Wolf composed Fühlt meine Seele [Track 11]. This text shares the reflective-erotic quality of many of the translations of Oriental poetry made by Goethe, Friedrich Rückert and Daumer. Grand thoughts of eternity, God, and so forth, are distilled down to the power of the beloved’s beautiful eyes, which are responsible for the poet’s inner turmoil.
The first three of Brahms’s Op 121 songs contain similar reflections on the painful ephemerality of life, but this time drawn from the book of Ecclesiastes. Despite not adhering to Christianity in any conventional way, Brahms was very familiar with his Lutheran Bible; here he assembled particular texts which together seem to offer a nihilistic view of the human condition. The melody of Denn es gehet dem Menschen wie dem Vieh [Track 12] recalls the contours of a movement from his own German Requiem from thirty years earlier, the ominous, despairing ‘Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras’ (‘For all flesh is as grass’). In this song, the poet concludes that he can seek comfort only in his work, since there is no way of knowing whether there is any afterlife. Its opening bare fifths anticipate, a semitone lower, the ending of Wolf’s Alles endet, was entstehet.
In the second song, Ich wandte mich [Track 13] the listener will recognize the opening falling octaves from Feldeinsamkeit, when the poet imagines that he is dead. But the third song offers a change of perspective. O Tod [Track 14], taken from Ecclesiasticus (Apocrypha) 41, v.1–2, begins by lamenting that death is bitter to those who are young and without care; but to those who are old, weak and burdened, death offers a blessed release. Brahms matches this sentiment with a shift from E minor to a melting, lucent E major. This is the same key with which Wolf ended his final song, Fühlt meine Seele, albeit with more chromatic colouring. The change in outlook is even more drastic in the final song, Wenn ich mit Menschen—und mit Engelzungen redete [Track 15]. Here, Brahms set the words of St Paul to the Corinthians (familiar from a thousand wedding services) which celebrate the centrality of love; not the fevered sexual love which dominates the poets of Nicht mehr zu dir zu gehen or Fühlt meine Seele, but the love for one’s fellow-man which sweetens our earthly lives, regardless of what may follow afterwards.
These seven songs show that both composers not only shared certain concerns, but also expressed them in a musical language which overlapped more than once. The parallels between their lives remain slim. Possibly most painfully for Wolf, his musical inspiration was capricious. He was capable of composing in terrific bursts, for instance the extraordinary period between 16 February 1888 and the end of 1891, in which he wrote 189 songs—but also suffered an eight-month creative drought. Brahms, on the other hand, approached composition as an artisan as well as an artist, maintaining a strict routine of daily composition, and rarely flagging. Posterity, however, has united their names as the two greatest proponents of German song in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Natasha Loges © 2014