Natasha Loges
BBC Music Magazine
April 2018

This is the seventh in Graham Johnson’s planned series covering the entire piano-accompanied vocal works of Brahms, several hundred settings shaped by the varied musical, literary and artistic influences he absorbed over half a century. Johnson has overcome the limitations of the published opus groups and crafted individual recitals designed around a few ‘core’ sets, while still retaining a sense of Brahms’s chronological development.

This thoughtful approach reveals an astonishing stylistic range. It takes in Brahms’s youthful folk-inspired settings, before time-travelling into a stark medieval past, then back into a contemporary sentimental-national idiom, before closing with a generous selection of folksong arrangements. But we are also regularly plunged into steamy eroticism—and few composers evoked desire as searingly as Brahms.

Particularly fine are the three virtuosic settings of poetry by Kopisch from Op 58, and Schenkendorf from Op 63. These expansive programmatic miracles betray Brahms’s deep immersion in Schubert’s songs during the 1860s. The gloriously sensual ‘Serenade’ Op 58 No 8 would surely persuade any girl to allow her lover to escape the ceaseless rain for an hour!

Johnson is alive to every juicy nuance of the richly detailed accompaniments. And although I was occasionally distracted by Appl’s closed vowels, which sometimes robbed the poetry of its immediacy, he brings many beautiful details to his reading.