This well-filled disc is the tenth and last in Hyperion’s series of all Brahms’s piano-accompanied songs. They have not been presented in chronological order; instead each of the ten discs has been a self-contained recital, each of which has started with some early songs and then worked its way through Brahms’s oeuvre, ending up with some of his late songs and as a light-hearted bonus presented some of his folk song arrangements. This also means that there is a mix of well-known songs and more or less rarities. Young Austrian mezzo-soprano Sophie Rennert follows the same pattern and begins the traversal as early as it is possible: with the very first song of his. Composed in Hamburg in January 1853, before his 20th birthday, and published in December the same year, Liebestreu is a conspicuous beginning to a series that when Vier ernste Gesänge, Op 120, were finished encompassed some 200 songs. Of these only a couple of dozens are really familiar.
I may not be a whole-hearted admirer of everything that Brahms does in the field of Lieder but I can appreciate a lot—not least his obvious skill in the handling of the accompaniment—and here he shows right from the beginning that he knows his trade. I can’t say that I warm very much to the first few songs here, though I note that musicologist Eric Sams says that the bloodcurdling Murrays Ermordung has an ‘operatic scope’. Maybe Brahms, who never composed an opera, deep inside had a wish to do so. Anyway, Graham Johnson’s extensive liner notes are a constant source of delight, as they have been throughout this series. His knowledge is encyclopaedic and he is masterly at mediating it accessibly—without unnecessary highbrow jargon. Even songs of moderate interest can be fascinating when Johnson ladles from his cornucopia. I truly recommend readers to imbibe his proficiency. I am satisfied to make some random remarks on some of the songs in this review.
With Die Mainacht (tr. 5) we reach the first true masterpiece in this collection. Brahms was at the height of his powers when he wrote it in April 1866 a few weeks before he turned 33. The poem by Hölty (1748-1776) enticed also Schubert and Fanny Mendelssohn to set the text before him, which proves the universal appeal of the poem. In this case loneliness, and as Graham Johnson says, Brahms has a ‘tendency to use lieder as a kind of diary, a safety valve of the emotions’.
The three songs Op 84: 1-3, none of them very well-known, are interesting. They are settings of the far from established amateur poet Hans Schmidt, 21 years Brahms’s junior, who sent him a volume of poems and translations in 1881. Brahms was immediately attracted by three poems sung by mothers and daughters, and set them to music to be sung, either as solo songs or as duets. They can be seen as sequels to Liebestreu, which also is a dialogue between a mother and a daughter. Schmidt was also a composer and a pianist and he often performed as accompanist to contralto Amalie Joachim, married to the famous violinist (and violist) Joseph Joachim. The Joachims were close friends of Brahms and when they married in 1863 Brahms composed Geistliches Wiegenlied for contralto, viola and piano as a wedding present. The marriage was stormy and more than twenty years later Brahms composed Gestillte Sehnsucht for the same constellation, hoping that they would reconcile. They didn’t and Joseph accused Amalie of adultery with, among others, her accompanist Hans Schmidt. Thus a connection between the two groups of song. Gestillte Sehnsucht and Geistliches Wiegenlied were published as Opus 91 in December 1884 and must be regarded as two of his greatest creations.
A very special place in Brahms’s vocal output is occupied by Zigeunerlieder—which were sent to him from Hugo Conrat, a friend-to-be of Brahms. Conrat had made translations of the Hungarian texts and the melodies supplied were supposed to be original gypsy melodies. Brahms was enthusiastic. He had since before an interest in Hungarian music, and his Hungarian dances (my gypsy children as he called them) had reached great popularity. His first piano quartet from 1861 has also a finale titled Rondo alla Zingarese. Brahms picked eleven songs from the collection Conrat sent him and set them for vocal quartet during the winter of 1887-88. They also became very popular which triggered the composer to publish eight of them in a solo version in in 1889. Here the old bachelor lets his hair down creates dancing rhythms to texts that ooze with yearning.
Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer was one of the first Brahms songs that really affected me when I as a young man bought an LP with Erna Berger singing so touchingly. A bit strange perhaps that a 25-year-old without any known ailments is caught by one of the great ‘deathbed songs’ as Johnson calls them. But her slightly frail sounding voice—she was in her mid-fifties when she made the recording—made me realise that we all grow older. The young and healthy Sophie Rennert doesn’t sound the slightest frail but she sings the song so beautifully and sensitively that I feel transported back to the days of Erna Berger. She doesn’t seem to have recorded Ständchen, even though I can imagine her voice being suited for it. Graham Johnson half dismisses it as ‘would almost be at home in Sigmund Romberg’s Heidelberg-inspired operetta The Student Prince’ which to me sounds like a compliment to Romberg. In the want of Erna Berger, Sophie Rennert’s clear tones and unaffected reading is a marvellous substitute.
And so are her readings of the six concluding folk songs. They are fresh as dew, the melodies are not by Brahms of course—some of them date back to 16th and 17th centuries—but the accompaniments are, and everyone probably has a favourite or two among them. Mine are Da unten im Tale and Es steht ein Lind, the latter from around 1550.
I have already comment on Sophie Rennert’s singing a couple of times already and want to sum up my impressions. She has a well-schooled high mezzo-soprano, beautiful and capable of both rhythmical lilt and dramatic exuberance—though the latter is in rather short supply in Brahms’s songs. Maybe she could make more of vocal colouring here and there. I wouldn’t say that her voice is monochrome but I believe she will deliver more in the future. Where she falls short—comparatively—is in the two songs Opus 91 for contralto, viola and piano. My benchmark recordings are the legendary 1949 version with Kathleen Ferrier, and Ann Sophie von Otter from 1989. Both have more true contralto depth and fullness of tone, Ferrier slightly weak at the top of her very deep voice, sounding almost like a schoolgirl—but so marvellously beautiful in Geistliches Wiegenlied. Sophie Rennert certainly sings very beautifully and in her own right manages this difficult songs very well. As a whole her interpretations are well up to the general standard of this series and collectors should with confidence invest in this final issue. This project is a worthy companion to Hyperion’s mammoth series with Schubert’s complete songs, also masterminded by Graham Johnson. Did I write that his accompaniments are just as masterly as they have ever been? They certainly are! Congratulations to Graham and Hyperion for bringing yet another song project to a successful close.