Roy Westbrook
MusicWeb International
October 2019

For this 8th volume in Hyperion’s ongoing complete Brahms song edition, which so far boasts the names of Kirchschlager, Schäfer, Holl, Maltman, Bode, Bostridge, and Appl, they have recruited a debutant. A debutant on CD that is, as Harriet Burns, though still a final year student at London’s Guildhall School (in the Opera School), has already collected a few prizes and given debut performances in several prestigious venues, a 2018 Schubert evening with Graham Johnson at Wigmore Hall among them. But if Graham Johnson thinks she’s ready, she probably is, and so proves a really worthy addition to Hyperion’s roster of Brahmsians.

It almost goes without saying that this is a well-planned recital for a recording debutant’s disc, giving her room to show different sides of her musical personality, and yet play to her strengths. Those strengths include an intrinsically appealing basic sound, control of line and tone, and identification with what she is singing about. In a song recital a singer is so often the narrator or the protagonist, and needs to empathise with the mood or even the tale found in the text. If she is not yet as buttonholing in this regard as she will surely become, as a lieder singer she already sounds like the real deal. The programme, as with others in the series, is broadly chronological and covers much of the composer’s songwriting career, and includes one complete publication—the six songs of Opus 7 in this case.

That work collects early settings, and its first song Treue Liebe (‘True Love’) is one of a favourite Brahms type, the Mädchenlied (a song that speaks of, or through, a maiden). It offers too a dominant mood in Brahms, often heard in this selection, of loneliness, loss, and despair. The youthful bloom on Harriet Burns’ tone is ideal in suggesting the tender age of the girl who has lost her lover at sea, and slips in to the water herself to share his fate. The pathos is there in the words and the notes and Burns finds it without overstating it. The same charm is heard in a much later song of the Mädchenlied type, Vorschneller Schwur (‘Overhasty Vow’—including a vow never to kiss boys).

There are no nods here to the older school of so-called ‘interventionist’ interpreters (unlike a few of the earlier contributors to this series). This is fine for these early settings but in some later ones I missed a degree of relish in the tang and character of the German language. When she alternates verses with Robin Tritschler in four duets in the final group of folksongs, one notices this a bit more. Her pronunciation sounds fine to me, but in a song with a lot of textual repetition like ‘Agnes’, which in verse two has a swift fourfold repetition of ‘kranken Blut’ (sick at heart), a few of those eight letter k’s could have used a little ‘kick’ maybe, without the sort of saliva-sharing manner that empties front rows.

But this is nothing alongside the many vocal virtues to be heard in a song like the rather unusual Lerchengesang (‘Lark’s song’), a miracle of hushed stillness and vocal control, exquisite in its effect. Johnson has a lot to do with that of course, not least since the song has several solo passages crucial to its effect. But Burns can do jaunty as well, as in the folksong Dort in den Weiden steht ein Haus (‘There among the willows stands a house’), and bring off the last on that group In stiller Nacht, zur ersten Wacht (‘In silent night, at first watch’) despite the tricksiness of the relation between voice and piano.

Graham Johnson is as reliable, and often as inspired, as we have long come to expect, and of course his booklet notes continue not merely to set the standard for them, but set it so very high that no other label seems to try to match it. But then he is as considerable a researcher and writer on the art song repertoire as he is a performer of it. Tenor Robin Tritschler’s contributions to four of the Deutsche Volkslieder are a considerable asset, and one hopes are a harbinger of a future volume of his own in this series. The recorded sound is exemplary, and this is a strong addition to an invaluable series.