While Brahms’s Lieder discography is far from as comprehensive as Schubert’s it is still large enough to be a challenge for any newcomer, and a soprano has to compete with great names from the past—and not so distant past. Browsing my own not too extensive collection I found names like Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Irmgard Seefried, Elly Ameling, Edith Mathis and Jessye Norman, who have all made indelible impressions through their recordings. What then has a young soprano, who here makes her CD debut, to offer against such competition? Quite a lot, actually. In the first place she has Graham Johnson as her accompanist, who not only is one of the most insightful and sensitive partners one can imagine, but also with his encyclopaedic knowledge writes so informative and perspective building liner notes that one groans with pleasure while savouring them. Herself she contributes with a fresh, unscathed voice of considerable beauty and a willingness to find adequate nuances. Her piano and pianissimo singing is lovely throughout, while at forte some high notes tend to stick out unduly. But still this is excellent singing that bodes well for the future. The opening Spanisches Lied, later set by Hugo Wolf, is not as mercurial as Wolf’s, which Johnson also points out in his notes, but it is a lovely song even so and Ms Burns sings it prettily. And maybe there is a shortcoming here, insofar as there is little variation in vocal colour. To call it monochrome is to exaggerate the impression, but those sopranos mentioned above have a wider pallet of colours. I’m pretty sure Harriet Burns will widen hers with more experience. And she articulates the texts excellently.
A feature of this entire series is that each CD presents the songs roughly in chronological order and spans from very early to very late songs. In each volume there is also one complete opus group. On this disc it is the Sechs Gesänge Op 7, most of the songs written when Brahms was still in his late teens. In most live recitals, and also most recorded recitals, singers pick and choose songs from various opus groups, but it is always interesting to hear what companion pieces the ‘favourites’ have. The beautiful but sad Treue Liebe and the concluding Heimkehr in this group are fairly often heard, and they sound fine here. Parole is more of a rarity but not unbecoming. The minimalistic Anklänge is interesting, and Volkslied to a traditional text is attractive, sung here with finely shaded restraint.
And this restraint is a kind of hallmark for her singing. It is tasteful, stylish and well considered. Songs like Vom Strande, Lerchengesang and Frühlingslied are splendid examples of her sensitive singing. Vom Strande is interesting in several ways, and Graham Johnson’s colourful description is certainly worth referring to. It is a setting of a Spanish poem from the 17th century, translated by Eichendorff, and Johnson means that Brahms didn’t set the words as an art song but as if it were a folk song. There is ‘an almost peasant-like simplicity of melody and strophic shape (perhaps Brahms’s concession to its Iberian background) but the complexity and unremitting density of the piano writing (surely more North-Sea-imagined than Mediterranean) render it more difficult for the pianist to play than anything the composer might have regarded as a legitimate folk-song accompaniment. Of concealed Spanish and North German ancestry this song is also stateless in sheerly musical terms, a migratory seabird, an impressive and commanding hybrid permanently at home in neither genre.’ A masterly pianist’s masterly word-painting!
‘Real’ folk songs and real folk song accompaniments we encounter in the last tracks: seven goodies from 49 Deutsche Volkslieder, published in 1894, but most of the settings were composed earlier. And of course these lovely melodies were also composed by various people, like whatever you characterise as ‘folk music’. These songs are a kind of vocal equivalent to Brahms’s Hungarian dances, which the composer called his Gypsy children. Lovely melodies and charming texts make them easy to appreciate—but they need to be performed with a twinkle in the eye. My first recording of the 42 songs intended for solo voices was the legendary album with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, accompanied by Gerald Moore—three super-refined interpreters of art songs who applied all their professionalism on these fairly simple songs and created something unforgettably superb. I have returned regularly to that recording for more than fifty years and am still as enchanted as I was the first time. But I believe Brahms himself would have expected simpler, more straightforward readings, and that is what they get from Harriet Burns and the admirable Robin Tritschler, who joins her in four of the songs. The freshness is so natural and I just had to reprise all seven at once. The last of the songs, the immensely beautiful In stiller Nacht is so lovely sung and it still rings in my head. I look forward to hearing more from Harriet Burns and I already have in my pile of un-listened discs a twofer with Robin Tritschler.