Colin Clarke
MusicWeb International
November 2020

This is the tenth and last disc in Hyperion’s Brahms Lieder cycle and begins at the very beginning of Brahms’ journey, with Liebestreu (True Love, text Robert Reinick) the first of a set of six Lieder written 1852-3 and published in 1853 by Breitkopf und Härtel. The shadowy duet between the low piano left hand and low-pitched voice, with lovely Brahms counterpoint, prefigures the dialogue in the text between mother and daughter. Sophie Rennert’s voice is magnificently burnished, full and deep. The song has parallels with Sommerabend, heard later in the recital. Less well known is the fourth song of Op 3, simply entitled Lied (text Friedrich Bodenstedt).

Boldness is the keyword for Murrays Ermordung, which uses a translation of a Scottish folksong. It has a narrative strength to it that seems to wish to burst through its short duration (less than three minutes); in demeanour, it puts me in mind of some of the more extended Schubert Lieder. The tragic grandeur of the score is viscerally communicated by Rennert and Johnson, as is the almost pictorial story telling of Von ewiger Liebe (the text, by Hoffmann von Fallersleben, has been misattributed to Josef Wenzig, to whom Brahms himself ascribed the text). Conveying the drama in these songs requires not only finely tuned musical sense but also fine diction, and Rennert delivers every word with a spectacular clarity allied to a fine sense of line.

The beloved song Die Mainacht (May Night, text Ludwig Hölty) offers a plateau of beauty, both Rennert and Johnson showing remarkable restraint in the opening bars by keeping everything on an even keel before the music interiorises further; Brahms implies a sense of cathartic release at the lines ‘Und die einsame Träne rinnt’ (and the lonely tear flows down’).

While, as Graham Johnson’s notes suggest, there is more than a hint of Wagnerian sensuality to Überwegte laue Luft, there is no doubting at any point that this came from Brahms’ pen. As the disc progresses, it becomes clear that, as if we didn’t already know, Brahms’ invention knows no limits. The creation of basically a two-part Invention in the accompaniment to Der Kranz (The Wreath, text Hans Schmidt) is testament to this. Even the relative simplicity of its companion, In den Beeren (Among the berries), Brahms introduces a multitude of twists and turns.

The songs with viola form the centrepiece of the disc, and one could hardly hope for a finer exponent of the obbligato part than Lawrence Power; warm-toned and expressive, Op 51 is a masterpiece. The first song, Gestillte Sehnsucht, is to a text by Rückert and is still and expressive, contrasting strongly with Geistliches Wiegenlied (Sacred cradle-song, words Emanuel Geibel), the expressively large vocal intervals rendered with superb accuracy by Rennert—and Power is similarly at the top of his game (the tuning needs to be spot-on, and thankfully is here).

Cleverly, Dort in den Weiden sieht ein Haus (There among the willows stands a house) forms a link to the eight Zigeinerlieder by setting words to a folk song from the Lower Rhine; it would also make a fine encore. There is no doubting the Hungarian flavours (of which Brahms was of course something of a connoisseur); those who are familiar with Brahms’ Hungarian Dances in either orchestral or piano garb will find much to enjoy here (the czardas of the third, for instance). This is joyous music-making, particularly in the extrovert final Rote Abendvolken ziehn (Red evening clouds drift).

What a journey it is, then, to the interior Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer (My sleep grows ever quieter), when Johnson refers to as a ‘Deathbed song’, and indeed, the music seems to float in some sort of liminal space between life and death. The beautiful Ständchen (Serenade) seems the ideal transition to the final set of excerpts from Deutsche Volkslieder, where art conceals art. It is the perfect, heart-warming close to the recital.

It is surprising Austrian mezzo Sophie Rennert has not cropped up more on disc; she won the 2014 International Mozart Competition in Salzburg, was a member of Konzert Theater Bern 2014-16, and has since established an international reputation. Graham Johnson, of course, needs no introduction, and everything one associates with him—the intelligence, the high musicality, the technical perfection—is here in spades. Perhaps the finest illustration is Von waldbekränzter Höhe (From forest-wreathed heights); the tricky piano part is a thing of wonder in its myriad subtleties.